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We had half expected it but when it did arrive, handed to me by a rather sheepish-looking person at the reception, it still came as a shock. The dreaded eviction notice.
The North Gower Hotel was in reality a bed and breakfast (B&B) hostel, without the breakfast, for the homeless, asylum seekers and refugees who were receiving housing benefit, so a bit of a mixed community. The B&B had recently been bought was under new management and the rumour that had been going around was that they were going to turn it into a backpackers hostel and kick us all out.
The date on the eviction notice was 24 December 1997, a lovely Christmas present. I can recall how the residents panicked, running around asking “What is going to happen? We’ll be on the street at Christmas”. Then the confusion turned to anger and defiance. “They can’t just do this to us. Can they?” Like hell they can, we thought. So the fight and the struggle began.
I and others began contacting people we thought could advise and help us, and after several meetings with the now-defunct Kings Cross Homelessness Project, Shelter and others we decided to form the North Gower Action Group (NGAG).
This was not to be some haphazard group of homeless people. We, the residents, decided if we are going to do this, we will do it properly, with due and proper procedure. The NGAG held its first meeting in the hostel on a wet winter evening in 1997, and the group duly elected a chairperson, secretary, treasurer and three committee members. Candidates for the positions were nominated or volunteered themselves, and a democratic vote was taken on each person. Fortunately, the people proposed were unchallenged and if a fourth person had been nominated for a committee position, they would probably have been, if deemed suitable, elected on to the committee.
Shelter gave us a grant to fund our cause and the services of their solicitor and media officer, the first to direct and advise us on legal matters and how to fight the eviction, the latter to co-ordinate and help with contacting the media. I do admit I felt excited and energised by the confidence and determination of the group plus the people and agencies who were helping us. Oh, the only stipulation we made to the media officer was that we would have nothing to do with The Sun newspaper.
We had made every effort to contact all the residents of the hostel to inform them of what was developing. Unfortunately, by the time we had organised ourselves, the management had picked out the more vulnerable of the residents and, we believed, were using bullying tactics and people’s ignorance of English law to harass them into leaving. They said: “If you do not leave the police will come and arrest you and you will be in prison.” They attempted to intimidate the ones who had stayed to fight – not by direct threats but by delaying our mail, which was delivered to the reception, or not telling people when someone visited or phoned. I contacted a solicitor about the tampering with the delivery of the Royal Mail, which is a serious offence in this country. After a letter from the solicitor and the threat of criminal action against the owners, that immediately stopped.
Gradually, as time progressed, the NGAG became an organised, co-ordinated and respected campaign group. Like others, I became aware of how to deal with people representing the various agencies we were involved with and the council. I had also developed my interview skills and learnt how to get our message across in a direct and simple manner.
We felt confident about our claim because the Shelter solicitor advised us that the eviction notice wasn’t legal. Eventually, all of the residents who had remained to fight for their rights were all housed. Some were accommodated by the council, others by housing associations or charities.
I still occasionally meet ex-residents from the North Gower Hotel and all of them appear to be doing well. One Somalian girl is now married with three daughters, a long way from her days of torture and sexual abuse, whilst others are in full-time employment.
It certainly seems a long, long time from the day I and others received the eviction notice to where I am today. I have been living in my council accommodation for 18 years and it certainly does not feel that I have been there that long.
It is amazing what a group of individuals can do when they become organised and use the legal system that is there to help them.
So remember no matter what anyone tells you, seek out the facts for yourself, contact people and agencies who can help you, and organise yourself with others in the same situation where possible.
If a bunch of disorganised (and often drunk) homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers can succeed, so can you.
Kenny wrote this article while on the Pavement's journalism training course, Word On The Street: London.