With the London housing shortage at crisis point, a group of young mothers have taken matters into their own hands by squatting abandoned social housing in the Olympic Borough of Newham. As of the weekend, four boarded up flats in on the Carpenters Estate in Stratford have been "reoccupied" by the Focus E15 Mothers group and turned into a makeshift social centre and open house for the homeless.
"People need homes, and these homes need people. We were all told there were no places in the borough for us, well we found them sitting empty," says Sam Middleton, 20, one of the founding women of activist group which began when she and 29 other young mothers faced eviction from the Focus E15 hostel just over a year ago today.
"It's as simple as that. There are people sleeping on the streets in Newham and empty, boarded up homes everywhere around here. They say there is no housing and they're regenerating the area but why do these houses need to be empty while they do it? The places have been boarded up for years. We're just doing what the council won't."
Last year, a heavily pregnant Sam, then 19, was living in the hostel in the shadow of the London Olympic village. She, along with the other women at the hostel were told that it was closing because of funding cuts. Newham Council offered to have them re-housed, which would have been OK, except they were to be shunted outside London. Newham had become expensive thanks in part to "regeneration" of the area around the Olympics, so moving people out of their own city seemed like the most cost effective, if heartless option for the stretched housing benefit budget.
Some mothers, most of whom have lived in the area their entire lives, were told they could be sent as far away as Manchester, Birmingham and Hastings, away from their families and support networks. Sam was due to give birth the day before the set eviction but instead of accepting the council's offer the women formed the Focus E15 Mothers group and successfully campaigned to be remain in London.
Sunday saw the one-year anniversary of their battle and a family funday was organised in the estate with face painting and live music to celebrate. This culminated in a small number of the group entering the properties and occupying the empty buildings - a surprise for many of those in attendance.
All of the original Focus E15 Mothers and their children have now been housed in private accommodation in the nearby area but this, they say, is very insecure. Most of them cost near to £1,000, are barely covered by their benefits and have short-term leases that they don't know will be renewed, so they are occupying the flats to protest their insecurity.
Today, two of the mothers are inside the building along with around 20 other supporters who come and go on a shift basis. They are cleaning and setting up activity and kids rooms for the residents of the estate to use. The building has electricity, hot water and relatively new kitchens and appliances. Several of the protesters slept in the building on Sunday night.
"We want it to be a place where people can come and get housing advice, use the phones and talk about these issues, get advice on letters to the council" says Jasmine Stone, also 20 and an original resident of the hostel, who is inside with her two-year-old daughter Safia. On the wall you can see the plans for the building, which state activities such as "plumbing classes", "house meetings", and "advice about stop and search".
The council are aware of the occupation but have so far taken no action. Councillor Andrew Baikie, Mayoral adviser for Housing in the borough described the situation in a press statement as a "petty, expensive stunt" in which he indicated action could soon be taken "get protesters off the estate". On Monday two police officers and a council representative visited but after not being allowed access left after a short period. Private property security and clearing company Clearway Group has also been present outside the buildings at several points of the day, checking other empty properties nearby and could be heard complaining to a passersby about the protesters "undoing" the work done securing the building, which was sort of exactly the point in the first place.
Asked about the occupation the council put forward the following statement from Baikie: "It is disappointing to see empty homes in the Carpenters Estate being occupied by agitators and hangers on," which seems like quite a weird thing to call a group of precariously housed young Mothers. "It is equally disappointing to see them attempt to misrepresent the truth for their own ends."
"I don't know what they think we're lying about. We've been in these situations faced with eviction," says Sam, just as disappointed as the council say they are. "We've lived round here all our lives and it makes me so sad and angry that these places are empty while there are vulnerable people with nowhere to go." Throughout the day, Sam and the other protesters can be seen beckoning in people she recognises or other residents from the street, who seem wholly supportive of the move.
The estate has been earmarked for redevelopment since 2010. However, many flats have been empty for up to ten years, which Sam says is "unjust" given the need for housing in the area. The council claim the current waiting list for social housing stands at 14,000 "homes". Which sounds like a lot of people hanging around waiting for somewhere to live. Critics, however, estimate that this really means approximately 24,000 individuals waiting.
The council says it is counteracting this by building new "affordable" housing, but Jasmine points out that the housing situation has become dire. "They say they want all these new developments but they are just geared towards rich people. We need affordable housing, not new housing. None of us can afford to live in them. These flats are clean and affordable and just sat empty. There are places here already."
When asked why the site was empty the council says, "the Carpenters Estate is not viable. The tower blocks are simply too expensive to renovate and will need to be demolished."
"They say the buildings are unsafe and you can't live in them but some of them are nicer than my flat," says Sam laughing while showing a photograph of a mouse skeleton she found when she moved in to her current home. "My little friend I call him."
Jasmine says she is constantly worried about her and her daughter's future. Like Sam, she has been relocated nearby in Stratford but says she is constantly anxious about what will happen to her and Safia.
"I've never ever met my landlord and I have no idea if we'll be able to stay beyond the end of our lease early next year. I want to be back in work now but we can't put down roots. I don't want to put her in nursery and then school to have her move again and again."
She says, like many people, she is angry that people are continuing to sleep rough when there are, by the councils own admission, 400 empty homes on the estate. This is the same council whose Mayor, Robin Wales, wrote in a column for the local newspaper, the Newham Recorder about cracking down on the local homeless by issuing ASBOs; some 28 in the last year. The women have met Wales but it is clear they are not fans. He's previously told the women "you just can't afford to live in London".
As of yet, it is unclear how long the occupation will last but Sam says they hope to remain in the premises for "as long as possible" and fix-up the two downstairs flats which are in a worse condition. "I really hope we can stay. I really hope we reoccupy the estate," says Jasmine. London's housing situation is at breaking point and the Focus E15 Mothers show that if the authorities can't or won't take action, people will.
Follow the Focus E15 Mothers on Twitter at @FocusE15