Squatters who turned a disused convent into a homeless shelter in Shadwell have been threatened with arrest and eviction under a controversial law criticised by housing charities and legal experts.
On 30th April, the collective self-titled ‘the Autonomous Shelter Network’ (ANS) were told to leave the disused Convent of Mercy they turned into a shelter and community hub seven months ago within 21 days, or risk being arrested.
The group said it plans to run a ‘resistance party’ on 20 May, the day before the threatened eviction (21 May).
In a statement, the group said: “We’ve housed, clothed, and fed each other through the harshest points of winter, opened our doors to countless vulnerable people, established satellite buildings throughout Tower Hamlets, and picked up the slack where councils fall short by rehousing the Shadwell Fire Survivors ourselves.”
Nineteen Bangladeshi Muslim men were nearly left homeless following a house fire in their council-run flat on Cornwall Street, Shadwell, on 5 March.
Seven of the survivors were temporarily housed by Autonomous Shelter Network, Novara Media reported.
The fire took the life of their housemate, Mizanur Rahman, 41.
The police threatened to use section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LAPSO) Act 2012, which made it an offence to squat inside a building designed for use as a place to live.
The police letter said: “The legislation provides that it is a criminal offence to occupy residential premises, which is applicable to the above building being a former convent with a mixed-use element of worship, office space, and residential accommodation.”
The group disputed this, arguing it was a strictly commercial building that the members did not intend to live in.
The building – the Convent of Mercy at 88 Hardinge Street, E1 0EB – was not recorded as a mixed-use property on its council tax records.
“Our intention is to take this to court and in front of a judge as we’ve always done,” the group said in a statement.
It said it was seeking legal advice from the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) and other organisations.
One member said: “Not even the Squatters Association have heard of a situation like this.”
Section 144 of the LAPSO Act was passed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2012.
In a 2011 press release proposing changing the law, then Housing Minister Grant Shapps said: “There’s never been such a thing as squatters’ rights – they are just a misreading of the laws that are actually designed to protect the homeowner.
“I want to lock the door on squatters and their so-called rights once and for all.”
Later that year, 160 lawyers and academics published an open letter criticising the proposal, arguing it was already a crime to live in someone else’s home without permission under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977.
In a government consultation on the Act, the Metropolitan Police said it did not need extra powers, and the proposal was condemned by homeless charities, the Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society.
The Convent of Mercy was first registered to Tower Hamlets in 1952 and was bought by the Union of the Sisters of Mercy Trustees in 2017, according to the building’s deeds.
A Union of the Sisters of Mercy spokesperson said it would not be able to comment until its Head of Congregation returns from meetings in the next few days.
A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said: “Police are in touch with a group believed to be illegally occupying a property on Hardinge Street, E1.
“Enquiries remain ongoing.”