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Unoccupied urban buildings and their potential for the homeless

ByLucy Barnes

Feb 8, 2017

The recent activity of squatters in a central London property has drawn attention to the fact that, whilst there are increasing numbers of homeless people, there are also many empty buildings.

On 23 January squatters occupied an empty £15m central London apartment and opened the property up as a temporary shelter for homeless people. The occupiers, who refer to themselves as the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians, planned to expose the scandal of ‘buy-to-leave’ properties and highlight how properties can be recycled as materials are.

The squatters were evicted last Wednesday following a court ruling on the previous day. The Guardian reported the thoughts of a 19-year-old who said, “it’s always like this, they kick us out and we find somewhere new, it will never change”.

According to the charity Crisis, the report from the Homelessness Monitor research of 2016 has revealed that in England approximately 275,000 people approached their local authority for homelessness assistance. Whilst this number has been decreasing year-on-year in Scotland, applications from single people, in particular single men, has been gradually increasing since 2007-8. These figures do not account for the ‘hidden homeless’; those who do not qualify for local authority assistance and end up living in some form of insecure accommodation.

Empty Homes, a campaigning charity, argue for an increased use of empty properties. According to government data, there are approximately 200,000 properties in England that have been left empty for over six months. In Scotland, there are roughly 34,000 private sector properties that have been left empty for this length of time.
The correlation between numbers of homeless people and empty buildings poses the question: could empty buildings be used to alleviate the numbers of homeless people?
Shelter’s Scottish Empty Homes Partnership provides support to organisations including councils and housing associations to develop strategies and policies that will bring empty private sector homes back into use. Whilst Shelter acknowledges the potential of empty properties to rehouse the homeless temporarily, they also explain the issues with this solution.

As many empty buildings are due to be demolished, they only offer a short-term solution that could simply postpone the problem. There are also the fewest empty homes in areas with the most housing need and often these buildings are not in appropriate condition to house people.

ReSpace Projects is an organisation that demonstrates how empty buildings might be used to offer a holistic solution. The not-for-profit company set up Hive Dalston, a human-interest versatile environment, in June 2015 to exemplify how empty buildings and wasted resources might be used for social and environmental good.

The building had been an empty office block for nearly eight years when the organisation was granted a six-month rent-free lease by the landlord on the condition that the building was to be used for the local community. With a budget of £250, the company opened Hive Dalston in Hackney after two weeks of preparation and hosted events such as fundraisers, conferences and art exhibitions.

Hive Dalston is still in use today and has helped roughly 70 charities and engaged with almost 250 local businesses. The organisation has attempted to create “a truly inclusive and collaborative environment that spans all sectors of society” by hosting homelessness fundraisers and soup kitchens, as well as cultural and political events.

A future project of their ‘Holistic Urban Regeneration’ model is the Homeless Not Helpless project. The building would help homeless people by offering a space in which they could shower, use clothes washing facilities and the Internet, receive a healthy free meal and gain access to a range of advice services. Their dream is that users of these facilities would go on to become part of the team running this project.

Whilst empty buildings alone cannot solve homelessness, ReSpace Projects highlights how local authorities and organisations might think about using these properties to help those in need.


Image: Flickr.com

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