On the 23rd of March, when Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown, many were concerned about its potential impact on domestic abuse victims. Experts warned that barring people from leaving their homes would increase tension, while also trapping sufferers inside with their abusers. A month later, domestic violence charity Refuge reported a 700 percent increase in calls to its helpline in one day.
Sistah Space, a Hackney-based domestic violence charity for women and children of African and Caribbean descent, has also experienced a huge rise in demand. While a charity of this kind might seem indispensable right now, Sistah Space’s attention has been diverted by a dispute with Hackney Council about its office, a former Salvation Army building owned by the council on east London’s Mare Street.
This afternoon, Hackney Council announced it would be serving an eviction notice to the charity, expecting it to vacate the premises in September.
In an email sent to VICE News, a spokesperson for the council said: “This afternoon, the council has asked Sistah Space to return to its registered premises in Clapton, following requested refurbishment of the building, and served notice on the shared commercial workspace in Mare Street being used on a rent-free, temporary basis by the organisation.”
It continued: “The charity provides advocacy, advice and educational classes to women and girls of African and Caribbean heritage affected by domestic violence, but is not a refuge and does not provide accommodation.”
Sistah Space moved to the Mare Street office six months ago, after leaving its previous premises in Clapton due to safety concerns. Hackney Council says it has now completed £35,000 worth of improvement works on the Clapton site and wants the charity to return there. Sistah Space – who the council claims agreed to return to the space in March – is refusing.
“We have a saying,” Ngozi Fulani, founder of Sistah Space, tells me when I visit the charity’s disputed Mare Street base on a muggy August afternoon. “‘Small axe chops down a big tree’.”
Sistah Space’s Clapton office was in a former retail unit on the Lower Clapton Road roundabout. The charity says that having only a glass shop-front between women fleeing their domestic abusers and the street outside was too dangerous. It also has concerns about a back door installed by the council, which it claims leads onto a derelict space with little public footfall. Above all, Fulani claims, the space was too small. There was not enough room for staff members to see women and their children in a private and safe way.
“[The council] are trying to persuade us to go back there, but we've made it very clear: we've done our risk assessment as domestic violence professionals, and we can tell you that place is worse than dangerous,” Fulani says. “It's a nice place where people can murder us and not get found for days.”
Since moving to the Mare Street office, Sistah Space has helped more woman than it did in Clapton, as well as attracting new volunteers.
“Everybody comes there,” Fulani says. “Everybody. It’s just like a safe space in a well lit, well used area – accessible. Every single bus that comes to Hackney passes through Mare Street.”
Sistah Space was founded in November of 2015 after the death of Hackney resident Valerie Forde, a Black woman, and her 22-month-old baby, Jahzara, at the hands of her husband and abuser. Three months earlier, Forde had told police in Stoke Newington that she was receiving death threats. A court later heard that Forde and her baby were killed with a machete and a hammer while her elder daughter listened on an open phone line.
Looking at that evidence, it’s unsurprising that Black women who are victims of domestic abuse often mistrust the police, or struggle to believe that they can help. Sistah Space provides a unique and vital space for Black women to seek advice and support.
“We are a vital service, because of the recent deportations, the Windrush scandal, immigration – you name it, the trust is zero,” says Fulani. “There are Black women all over the UK, who are either in domestic abuse situations, stuck because of COVID, rape situations... and they're not reporting because they don't trust the system.”
“Here, when you come to Sistah Space,” she continues, “when you come through the door, you see yourself reflected.”
For five years, Sistah Space has provided advocacy, group sessions, legal counsel, educational classes and pastoral care for women either facing domestic violence and sexual abuse, or those who have experienced it in the past. While it is not a refuge, it helps women find places to go if their home environment is unsafe.
Fulani and her team run sewing sessions, provide hygiene products, or just somewhere to sit on a sofa and watch TV. The charity also began delivering food parcels to vulnerable people after Musa, a homeless man living at a bus stop in Stoke Newington, was found dead in 2019. It currently receives funding to pay one employee, while the rest of the staff are volunteers.
On my visit to Sistah Space’s Mare Street office, I find sewing machines lined neatly in rows, rag dolls resting on bookshelves and potted lilies. The freshly painted walls and large reception area are very different to the Clapton space Fulani describes.
According to Hackney Council, £35,768.22 was spent on improving the Clapton building. The council says this was to provide a secure front door and frontage, an internal partitioned room for private meetings, a new rear door to provide an emergency escape and an upgrade to the heating and electrical systems. Sistah Space says the building is still unsafe, despite these renovation works.
When VICE News requested information from Hackney Council on the costs of these improvements, a breakdown of the £35,768.22 was provided, which showed that £3,109.12 was spent on “a new fire alarm” and £820.00 on a “tea point” alongside other improvements. No further financial breakdown was provided.
The Mare Street office is on the second floor of a large building opposite Hackney Town Hall, owned by Hackney Council. The council is currently searching for a new provider to run the building after the previous provider went out of business (which is why Sistah Space was able to move in in the interim).
After ten years of austerity and an additional £40 million of debt due to the pandemic, Hackney Council says that the building where Sistah Space currently operates is a commercial opportunity for the council to funnel money back into frontline services.
But Sistah Space isn’t asking for the space for free. After several successful fundraising drives, including a GoFundMe that raised almost £60,000, it has offered to lease the floor at market rate. Hackney Council believes that it is not their responsibility to decide who leases the floors, and once a new provider is appointed for the building they are happy to introduce Sistah Space to negotiate with them.
It is unclear why Hackney Council, which has publicly praised Sistah Space, does not ask that any providers interested in running the building lease one floor to Sistah Space. The charity is, after all, a frontline service. When asked about this, the council said that it is Sistah Space’s responsibility to discuss the issue with the provider.
Whatever happens, Fulani is doubtful of the council’s support. “If they say they’ve made an anti-racist pledge, then part of that pledge, knowing that we are underrepresented in Hackney, [is that] you would do your utmost to make sure [Sistah Space] can hold that space. But no, the opposite is true.”
A spokesperson from Hackney Council told VICE News: “We have long supported Sistah Space’s work, which is why we helped them to find a building in Clapton in 2016 and have invested £35,000 to refurbish it at their request, providing safer and more secure premises for staff and women seeking help.”
“We do not let buildings at commercial rates to make a profit – all income generated is directly invested into frontline services, including tackling domestic abuse and grant funding for the voluntary sector,” they continued. “After a decade of austerity and cuts in government funding, letting buildings in this way is a vital source of revenue to support council services.”
Fulani alleges that Hackney Council have other motives in not wanting a domestic violence charity to work in a building otherwise used as a co-working space. “It's gentrification,” she says. “We don't fit the profile. We're a Black women's group in a very prime position – facing Hackney Town Hall. They don't want that.”
“It is unfortunate that the people making decisions about us, at the top of the Hackney council chain, are all middle class white men who haven't got a flipping clue class-wise, race-wise or gender-wise,” continues Fulani, “and these are people making decisions that are affecting our lives.”
VICE News asked to speak to the head of Hackney Council, Mayor Philip Glanville, but he was on holiday at the time of writing. No other councillor was available for an interview at the time.
Sistah Space has permission to stay in its current premises until the end of August, but has been forced to suspend all services except high risk cases due to the uncertainty over its future. Fulani stresses that she and the volunteers will do everything they can to stay.
“We're not worried because we're not coming out,” she says. “I'll move in if I need to, because Black lives matter. And I've seen a man die and take eight minutes and 40 seconds to do that. I'm not gonna watch anybody die, so if you want us out, you better find us a better solution.”
Fulani is a powerful speaker, and has fought tirelessly for Sistah Space. Towards the end of our conversation, I ask how the dispute with the council has taken a toll on her personally.
“I'll be honest,” she says. “Last year, my husband – we weren't together but we were close – he passed away. My kids are so afraid that this is gonna take its toll on me that they don't want me in it. Nothing can happen to me, I'm a strong woman…”
She exhales. "The effect it's having? It's... it's... I won't lie,” she continues. “It's having an effect. I haven't had a day off since March, because we do so much for so many, and there's so few of us. To fight for our place is something that is consuming us 24 hours a day and seven days a week, and it's not there. For four years we've done this for nothing.”
No matter how this dispute ends, Fulani says she will continue fighting. “We're not surprised [with the eviction notice],” she says. “To be honest, I know it's going to be a fight."
She continues: “What keeps us all going is because we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We are from the Windrush generation, or we're direct descendants of it. We have seen what's happened to our parents and grandparents, and we are determined it's not going to happen to our kids.”
“We don't have a choice here. It's more than a building. It's more than just a space.”
Correction 11/08/20: This article was updated to clarify the financial information provided to VICE News by Hackney Council on the improvements it made to the Clapton site.