One of the most exciting developments in London over the last year is the formation of the London Coalition Against Poverty. LCAP is inspired by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Canada, who have created a successful and empowering model of grassroots community organising over the last two decades. It brings together activists, advice workers and campaigning groups in order to tackle the causes and effects of poverty, merging advice work, direct action and libertarian organising.
LCAP’s work has been based in Hackney and, to a lesser extent, Haringey in the north east of London. This is a pragmatic approach, reflecting where most current members live or work. The main focus over the year has been combating Hackney Council’s Homeless Persons Unit’s (HPU) use of ‘gate-keeping’. This is the practice of misdirecting, lying and confusing people attempting to access housing. Officially ‘gate-keeping’ is illegal, but the practice is widespread amongst councils who attempt to manage demand for reduced housing stocks through making staff deny people a Homeless Person’s Interview which is their statutory right.
LCAP started out leafleting outside the HPU (which they still do regularly) informing people of their rights and asking if they had experienced ‘gate-keeping’. Once they have a case they work by placing pressure in the form of public collective action on the HPU office. A typical action involves a letter to the council explaining their obligations followed by a visit to the housing offices with the person affected and between five and ten supporters who will refuse to leave until the person has been housed.
LCAP’s approach is based on ‘Direct Action Casework’ (see below) which has been used successfully on several occasions, in each case challenging the unlawful refusal of accommodation to homeless people. For example, LCAP was approached by a man who had lived on the streets for some time. He had approached the Housing Office for help and had been turned away and prevented from making a Homeless Person’s Application. LCAP brought five people to accompany him to the Housing Office and demanded that the application be accepted. The Housing Office responded by offering an appointment in several days time. This was not good enough and LCAP immediately escalated their action by leafleting the people waiting with information about their legal rights. Although initially threatening to call the police the Housing Office backed down and took the application the same day, providing temporary housing in a hostel.
LCAP has also held consultations outside Hackney HPU to collect evidence about ‘gate-keeping’ and to get people’s ideas about what they want to see changed at the HPU. There have been two successful demos against ‘gate-keeping’ outside Hackney town hall. One was a Halloween action called ‘a Night Left on Mare Street’ where costumed revellers trick or treated councillors. The other was just before Christmas with a Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ theme with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come exposing Hackney’s ‘gate-keeping’ practices. A future tactic will be to try to get the council to support a motion against ‘gate-keeping’ to publicise the practice and use the motion to pressure the council in the future.
LCAP seeks to empower people through solidarity rather than to duplicate the work of existing advice agencies. They always make clear that they are working to change the unjust system of which these cases are particular examples. But once they take on a case the priority is to win.
LCAP have started doing training days, helping people learn about doing Direct Action Casework and about the law around homelessness. The first one was attended by about 25 people who considered it a success. Whether this will translate into many people becoming involved is yet to be seen, although some were already members gaining greater confidence, knowledge and skills.
Other campaigns have included the Haringey Anti-poverty Initiative, looking to tackle issues around debt, with the dual methods of offering support and advice and confronting the finance companies making money out of misery. Activities have centred mainly on Noel Park estate including advice surgeries with the emphasis on using collective action and picketing Brighthouse, a company that specialises in fleecing people with poor credit ratings through extortionate interest on goods brought. In the future they hope to map the main problems in the area, build a support network capable of mobilising when debt collectors or bailiffs are in the areas and to use Direct Action Casework in bailiff cases.
LCAP have also been working with North London Action for the Homeless with documenting the numbers of rough sleepers and the problems they face, to gather evidence to counter Hackney Council’s ridiculous claim that there are only six street sleepers in the borough. This is a good of example of LCAP’s attempts at alliance building, to enable groups to share resources whilst retaining autonomy. LCAP is also facilitating a campaign of hostel residents who want to challenge the unsafe, overcrowded, unsanitary and poor conditions they are being forced to live in.
Although the successes LCAP have had have been small, they prove Direct Action Casework does work. The last year has seen LCAP consolidate and educate its membership base, build alliances, fund raise and build a solid foundation for future growth and action. In its second year it is looking to find a permanent office (it currently has a temporary one in the London Activist Resource Centre), expand its activities into other parts of London and apply Direct Action Casework to other relevant issues.
Direct Action Casework
is about knowing our rights and using direct action to enforce them in the same way that workers use disruptive action (go-slows, work to rule, sabotage and strikes) to gain their demands applies this approach to life outside the workplace disrupting the smooth functioning of institutions which are failing to meet their legal requirements, forcing them to concede to our demands is designed to cut through official processes to get people what they deserve and facilitates self-organising by the people directly affected enables those people, whose immediate problem having been resolved, to become involved in helping others without feeling that they need specialist expertise is effective but it isn’t enough – campaign work is crucial to challenge the underlying problems and extend the experience of direct action to a broader context
How to Enforce your Rights at Work
Held recently by LCAP, this workshop consisted of three sessions:
‘Exploring Workers’ Rights’, looked at basic rights through explor- ing what rights apply in particular scenarios and where to find sources of further information. Participants received a booklet containing what was covered in this session.
‘The Whys and Hows of Organising’, was divided into two sections
a. ‘Why Organise at Work?’, was presented by South London Solidarity Federation, and looked at the specific reasons why we need to organise to enforce our rights and the other benefits of organising in your workplace.
b. ‘How we Organise’ was led by the London Industrial Workers of the World and focused on the nuts and bolts of organising, look- ing at different ways and models of working collectively and at their strengths and weaknesses.
The feedback was pretty positive and LCAP intend to do more training in different parts of London, including more in-depth sessions focusing on particular issues.