"We had to do this to save lives; we had nowhere to take people"
By Adela Suliman
LONDON, March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Outside a multi-million pound property in central London a small black sign reading "The homeless are revolting, join them" is the only indication this building is involved in a dispute over how the homeless are treated in the British capital.
When snow blasted London in early March, a group of about 160 homeless people moved into the disused 17.5 million pound ($24 million) eight-storey building in Great Portland Street, making it the biggest single shelter in the capital.
The occupation - due to end on Monday with a court ordering their eviction - has sparked a citywide debate involving London Mayor Sadiq Khan about the treatment of growing numbers of homeless people.
Sleeping on the streets - or rough sleeping - has risen in England for seven consecutive years, according to government figures, with more than 1,000 homeless in London and more than 4,100 nationally, a 134 percent jump since 2010..
Jane Clendon, who was homeless and now volunteers with Streets Kitchen, a group that works with the homeless and is involved with the squat, said the traditional systems for dealing with people living on the streets were not adequate while buildings sat empty.
"The system that is in place isn't working and it's just heartbreaking," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We had to do this to save lives; we had nowhere to take people."
The squatting campaign began after "Storm Emma", a snow blast from Siberia dubbed "the Beast from the East", hit Britain in March, with homeless people seeking shelter saying local authorities took too long to find solutions.
The squatters moved into the empty building, dubbed the Sofia Solidarity Centre, while volunteers provided hot food and drinks and also supplied clothing, toiletries and sleeping bags.
Group co-ordinator Steve Broe, 54, who is homeless, said the squatters planned to leave peacefully on Monday and were seeking somewhere to go but railed it made no sense to have so many homeless in London - and so many empty buildings.
"It is ridiculous ... the current services that are out there are very inadequate," Broe said.
Property company W1 Developments that is responsible for the occupied building in Great Portland Street did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
But the squatters said the company had given them an extra few days during a cold snap before enforcing the eviction.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said his team had spoken to the local authority, Westminster City Council, and made sure help was at hand when the group moved on.
"It's shocking that some people sleeping rough feel they have no other option than to sleep in a derelict building," Khan said in a statement.
"Ministers have simply got to do more to invest in services that provide a warm bed and a proper route off the streets for good."
A Westminster City Council spokesman said the local authority helped people find accommodation all year round and activated an emergency protocol when temperatures drop below zero, providing up to 100 extra beds a night.
Britain's parliament last year passed the Homelessness Reduction Act, which was designed to ensure that local councils had increased obligations towards homeless people.
But volunteer Jacqueline Messih, 31, said this was not enough as the face of homelessness in London changed with more working poor and international people living on the streets.
"London is a rich city, we come from a rich country and yet there are still no facilities or organisations that can house these people," Messih said.
Otman Ferraj, 33, from Brussels, arrived at the Great Portland Street building four nights ago after running out of money for a hotel while visiting London.
"I looked online for a squat and found this. It's not my first time. I've travelled and stayed in squats in Switzerland, Holland and Germany. I think it's a very good solution," he said. "We are like a family ... it's better than being alone."
($1 = 0.7133 pounds)
(Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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