A judge has just ruled that around 160 homeless people and rough sleepers are to be thrown back out onto the streets from a makeshift homeless shelter. All because a corporation’s ownership of an empty building was deemed more important.
Streets Kitchen is a grassroots group, supporting homeless people and rough sleepers across London. And it has taken matters into its own hands by occupying 204 Great Portland Street, on the boundary between Fitzrovia and Marylebone. The building, Sofia House, is being “regenerated” by a property company, W1 Developments, but has been standing vacant. So Streets Kitchen has turned it into the ‘Sofia Solidarity Centre’.
As Jon Glackin from Streets Kitchen said:
We’ve taken this building back. It’s been empty for five years. So [we’ve] reoccupied it to provide a space space for homeless people… Basically, trying to save people’s lives.
W1 Developments, seemingly operating under the name 204 GP Street (Jersey) Limited, took Streets Kitchen to court to regain possession of the property. As The Canary revealed, W1 Developments’ majority shareholder operates out of the British Virgin Islands tax haven. The company also has a spider’s web of other companies associated with it. W1 Developments itself only paid £723 corporation tax in the year up to 28 February 2017.
But the judge in the central London County Court ruled that 204 GP Street (Jersey) Limited has full possession of the property, meaning that Streets Kitchen and its guests can be evicted at a moment’s notice. This leaves the future for up to 160 homeless people and rough sleepers once again precarious.
A fraught hearing
During the hearing, 204 GP Street (Jersey) Limited’s barrister argued several points. Much of his case was based on the recording of an exchange between a member of Streets Kitchen and the janitor of the property, who said the group could stay there. The barrister argued that the janitor neither had the authority, nor was it given, and nor would anyone assume the janitor would have authority. He also argued, to some disgust in the courtroom, that the weather had now “improved” since Streets Kitchen first occupied the building; implying that the shelter was no longer needed.
But Streets Kitchen’s advocate hit back. He argued that the exchange between the janitor and Streets Kitchen constituted a legal licence for the group to be there. He also said that the janitor did have the authority to grant Streets Kitchen a licence. And he poured some scorn on the claimant’s assertions about the weather, noting the temperature would be dropping below freezing in the coming days.
He also argued that, because the court did not have access to the original lease from 1916, a possession order could not be comfortably argued. At one point, when Streets Kitchen’s advocate said that the claimant would not suffer any financial loss due to Streets Kitchen’s occupation, the judge argued that this was merely “speculation”. So I quickly passed my phone to the front, which had this document [pdf, p5] on it, showing official planning documents stating demolition was intended. But the judge dismissed this.
Streets Kitchen’s advocate also argued people’s rights under Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act, and asked the judge to consider Articles eight and two (the right to life) as well. He summed up by calling for “proportionality” from the judge in this case, arguing that “people are dying on the streets and the defendants are doing this out of a moral duty”.
And saving the lives of homeless people and rough sleepers is indeed a priority for Streets Kitchen.
No more deaths on our streets
At least four homeless people have died in London so far this year; most recently, a man perished near the Houses of Parliament. In Nottinghamshire, a man was found dead on 27 February in freezing conditions. Another man died on 23 February in Edinburgh. On the same day, a man died in Essex. Earlier in February, a man died in Cardiff. And at the end of January, a man died in Dudley, West Midlands.
Streets Kitchen’s occupation has already meant that over 160 homeless people and rough sleepers have had a safe, warm place to stay:
over 160 rough sleepers in last night at the Sofia Solidarity Centre @streetskitchen, resting peacefully in the warm.
county court on the strand at 2PM today for our hearing – let's hope it's not the last night of shelter we can offer. pic.twitter.com/rCKryGlXKT
— matt broomfield (@hashtagbroom) March 14, 2018
All over. For now…
But the judge seemed unconcerned with any of this. He said he:
Want[ed] to express that the matter of homelessness is serious, and one that should be taken seriously… But I have to consider relevant points of law and apply them to this matter.
He threw out all of Streets Kitchen’s advocate’s points; specifically of note was his inference that if he agreed that Article 11 of the Human Rights Act was indeed breached, he would be setting a precedent that would “allow the occupation of any property”.
The court order grants 204 GP Street (Jersey) Limited, essentially W1 Developments, the right to throw out all the homeless people whenever they want. Streets Kitchen appealed for an effective ‘stay of execution’, but this too was denied. Watching proceedings, it appears that the claimant’s legal team knew the case was going to go in their favour, as they had the eviction notices pre-prepared.
Homeless people. Homeless again.
So what now for the 160-odd homeless people in Sofia House? Streets Kitchen and the organisers of the centre have remained tight-lipped. But this may not be the end of the matter, as there is still more information about W1 Developments that The Canary will be releasing in the coming days.
But with temperatures set to plummet again this weekend, the judge has effectively sent 160 people out into misery and with possibly grave health implications. It appears that, in the UK judicial system, human rights and humanity no longer matter – when it comes to the rights of a tax-avoiding, faceless corporation, that is. Welcome to Tory Britain.
This article was updated at 10am on Saturday 14 April to reflect that Streets Kitchen had an advocate representing it in court, not a barrister.
Featured image via The Canary