Around 100 riot police were deployed to evict people from a homeless shelter in east London on Thursday.
Officers evicted 29 people from the building in Tower Hamlets, which had been taken over by a group called Autonomous Winter Shelter (AWS) who said it had been providing shelter to around 40 people since November 2022.
In videos posted online, officers were seen pushing and chasing after people on foot after arriving at around 10am to conduct the raid.
Alex, an activist who has been living inside the ‘peaceful community’ since last year, told the Evening Standard that the police activity was ‘crazy’.
‘We have over 40 people in here but a lot of people ran away when they saw the riot squad. It’s probably one of the most expensive attempted evictions I have ever seen,’ they said.
‘Some people are still inside but we are leaving.
‘They gave us no warning, they came with a whole riot squad for homeless people. It was horrible can you imagine?
‘I am very angry. Others were terrified and ran away, most of the organisers are just trying to help rough sleepers.’
Police became aware of the shelter in December 2022 after the owners of the building complained the homeless people were occupying it illegally.
As part of their investigation, officers had also attended the venue on numerous occasions, but were reportedly refused entry by the occupants.
On April 30, residents were issued an eviction notice. But the AWS group decided they would not obey it because of the need to provide housing.
The AWS said six residents were survivors of a fatal house fire in Shadwell in early March, who had been provided with temporary accommodation by Tower Hamlets council which is believed to have ended.
Around 100 protesters turned up to defend the residents from eviction.
As police issued a dispersal notice to the residents and protesters, cops chased and threw to the ground some people who tried to escape.
At least one person was injured after being seized by police. They were later dearrested as protesters stood by the police van.
Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman had previously written to police telling them to call off the raid, endorsing a previous email to the Met from the Advisory Service For Squatters (ASS) that said: ‘In the circumstances … police intervention … would clearly be inappropriate and we would suggest unlawful.’
But the Met defended its heavy-handed response, with Police Superintendent Andy Port saying that despite officers having ‘sympathy’ for the homeless people in the shelter, they were breaking the law.
He said: ‘We are aware of concerns raised both via social and mainstream media, particularly around the fact the address was being used as a homeless shelter and that police attendance appeared to be ‘heavy-handed’.
‘Whilst we have sympathy for those who were using the premises, ultimately they have been acting outside the law in occupying the venue.
‘As well as acting on the wishes of the owner, more importantly we have taken this action in response to a growing number of complaints and concerns reported to us by local residents.
‘We did not want it to come to the point where we have had to escort individuals from a premises, but attempts to engage with the group had proved unsuccessful.
In terms of our attendance this morning, because of the lack of engagement from those inside it was difficult to know how many people were present, so we had to prepare accordingly. No one was arrested.
‘As police officers, we are here to serve our communities and uphold the law, but I know that this incident has understandably raised questions and concerns from those who may be unaware of the background and context.
‘As such we will continue to be open and transparent with the public in explaining the reasons behind our actions.’
An AWS spokesperson recently said: ‘We do what we do because councils and the state fail us all the time. We do not however, have even a fraction of the resources and while people are being referred to us, the threat to our existence remains.’
Tower Hamlets suffered the highest rate of homeless deaths among all London boroughs in 2021, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Last year the Department of Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities recorded 1,510 empty homes in the borough.
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