Meet the feminist group campaigning to save a Whitechapel hostel

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*This article originally appeared on EastLondonLines

Campaigners are fighting to save a women-only hostel in Whitechapel from closure, warning vulnerable victims could end up homeless. 

The group, East End Sisters Uncut, went to Brick Lane market on Sunday (October 29), handing out leaflets about the feared impact of the closure of Hopetown Hostel in Whitechapel. 

A 40-foot banner was also dropped to disrupt the Sunday market which read: “Tower Hamlets cuts hope for survivors”.  

The hostel, based on Old Montague Street, is being returned to The Salvation Army by Tower Hamlets Council after 10 years. 

The charity said they needed the building to create a new men’s hostel in addition to their current one at Booth House on Whitechapel Road.  

The women at the hostel were given notice in July and have already begun moving their belongings- however East End Sisters Uncut have since started online petitions and street action to prevent the closure.  

Sara, a long-serving member of the group, told me: “Because of areas such as Shoreditch being gentrified, the women are being moved out of the area and out of sight. 

 “This means they’re losing vital networks and support services- a lot of them have health workers in the borough. 

 “All of the women are being treated very differently. Some are even being victimised by the council.  

 “Women are being offered private rental (homes) that are miles away from where they work, but if they refuse these, they are told they’re making themselves intentionally homeless. 

 “The problem is the issue isn’t really being discussed- a lot of the public don’t even know it’s going on.” 

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East End Sisters claims that the council is also demonising the hostel and branding it a place full of anti-social behaviour. However, according to the group, when they spoke to residents whose homes backed onto the hostel, many didn’t even know that it was a hostel.  

 A resident of the hostel, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “The council is treating me and the other women like we’re nothing. They just want to save money at our expense.  

“They are threatening to find us ‘intentionally homeless’ if we turn down housing that is completely inappropriate for us. I’m scared I will have nowhere to go.” 

The women protested to Tower Hamlets Mayor, John Biggs, in July after receiving the letters telling them they had to leave.  

According to campaigners, those with complex health needs are being sent away from East London all together. 

The issue was first uncovered by Councillor Rabina Khan, who found one mother and her seven year-old daughter had been sent to Gillingham, Kent. 

She said they had no means of support there and forced to live on bread and chips for a week.  

Others are said to have been moved to Romford, Enfield and Heathrow.  

Tower Hamlets Council already have a programme where the homeless are assessed for their housing status, and many people, like the women in the hostel, are not legally entitled to be rehoused by the council at public expensive- and are instead referred to the private rental sector. 

The council have said that they have made considerable progress in improving services and reducing homelessness in the borough since the previous Homelessness plan was launched in 2008. Their figures show that they prevented over 3,700 households from becoming homeless through case work. 

But according to East End Sister’s, this is not the whole picture, and they claim that the council have cut women-only beds in the borough by one third. 

Now they are calling for the council to keep Hopetown Hostel open and retain all of its women-only beds, as well as invest in social housing and support services for women and non-binary people.  

Hopetown is one of the last women-only hostels in East London, and most homeless women are survivors of violence or abuse.  

It is described on the Tower Hamlets Council website as: ‘providing 24-hour support for homeless women of all ages, including 16 and 17 year olds on a case-by-case basis.’  

 ‘The hostel supports customers with a large range of support needs, including women involved in sex work and those with alcohol or substance misuse issues. 

The overall aim of the service is to prepare people for independent living and a move to independent accommodation”. 

The importance of keeping the hostel open came to light when East End Sisters were contacted by residents themselves about the upcoming closure of the hostel- and they weren’t sure where or when they would be moved. 

East End Sisters Uncut was started in 2014 by a group of survivors of domestic abuse, and support workers.  

Originally it began as one London group, then split into sub-groups as more people wanted to join the movement. There’s now three groups in London alone, and they are slowly growing around the UK- with bases now in Scotland, Brighton, Doncaster and Newcastle.  

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Last summer they reclaimed a council flat in Hackney, by occupying the property for 10 weeks, hosting kids clubs and talks there.  

The link for the group was the lack of safe housing for women fleeing domestic violence, as well as the lack of social housing in general, as many of the council properties are lying empty.  

 Over recent weeks they’ve been campaigning for Hopetown in particular. They believe that because of the gentrification of a lot of East London areas and the fact that some of the women at the hostel being sex workers, the council are using this as an excuse for social cleansing.  

 Housing need is historically high in Tower Hamlets. Homelessness and overcrowding are part of the many challenges faced by the borough’s residents.  

It has always been linked to poverty – including child poverty, worklessness and health inequalities.  

Whilst there are pockets of wealth, with the average annual earnings of those working in the borough at £64,000, over 40% of households are living in income poverty, the highest in the country.  

 Tower Hamlets also has the highest rates of child and pensioner poverty nationally, making the borough one of the most deprived areas in the country.  

Tower Hamlets Council were contacted for a comment but they had yet to respond at the time of publication.

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