October 2015        

The Bolt Hostel story

Interview with Séamus Farrell of the Irish Housing Network

      Firstly, can you tell us who the Irish Housing Network are, and why you got organised?
     The Irish Housing Network is a collection of eight grass-roots community housing and homeless groups. The groups include North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Committee, Help 4 the Homeless Ballyfermot, Housing Action Now, An Spréach Housing Action Collective, A Lending Hand, Social Workers’ Action Network, the Hub, and Help the Hidden Homeless.
     The groups come from various perspectives and responses to components of the housing and homeless crisis. Housing Action Now, for example, emerged out of community activists, researchers and young left-wing activists coming together with a broad analysis of the housing crisis and with an interest in action.
     Groups such as North Dublin Bay HCC grew as a collection of mothers on the social housing waiting-list who started taking direct action to highlight the crisis and are now building out and organising in their community as well as in the network.
     A Lending Hand and Help 4 the Homeless Ballyfermot both emerged as emergency responses to homelessness, providing food and clothing for those in need. Groups such as An Spréach provide an anti-capitalist narrative with an emphasis on direct action and reclaiming homes; the Hub emphasises legal support; the Social Workers’ Action Network, a radical position on service providers; and Help the Hidden Homeless focus on a specific aspect of the crisis in terms of those in temporary accommodation.
     Many groups were already radical; others became more so following engagement in direct action and through emerging radical analysis in the aftermath of government policy decisions and damning failures, for example after the death of Jonathan Corrie in the winter of 2014/15. After much fanfare and press coverage, for those on the ground the crisis was only getting worse, not better.
     With many different perspectives and approaches, a common line was found to form a housing network in terms of a common set of principles, agreed structures, and a starting set of demands. All are on the Facebook page of the network and emphasise grass-roots organising, democracy and mutual solidarity as the basis for action on this crisis.
     You have reclaimed the Bolt Hostel in Bolton Street. How and why did you do this?
     With the network formed in May we were immediately thrown into what we saw as necessary action. Cases were flooding forward through individual groups and the network as a whole, which showed the depths of the crisis. Four cases—a mother six months pregnant with a young child handed only a sleeping-bag the night before, a mother of three also handed a sleeping-bag, a couple who had been asked to split up to get emergency accommodation, and a mental health patient released with no support—were wiling to come forward to take their case directly to Dublin City Council. We occupied their offices at Wood Quay, demanding negotiations and for these people to be provided for. After four hours of negotiation and a continued presence of between forty and seventy activists, we won that battle.
     In many ways this solidified our organising capacity and our ability to take action. From here we went on to occupy the Department of the Environment, which led to negotiations with senior department staff but no concrete tangible win, and to fight for two straight weeks with Alan and Kellie in South Dublin County Council. They had been provided only with a sleeping-bag, Alan seriously sick, his partner Kellie also his carer. They wanted temporary accommodation, and as Alan had custody of his son for four days a week we want to make sure he could have his son visit.
     Alan and Kellie and activists in the network slept in DCC for three nights, outside DCC for another three nights, and were served with an injunction for their actions.
     All these previous actions built up to the Bolt Hostel in Bolton Street. We have taken on the council and the department, and now we felt we needed to take matters into our own hands and directly house those in need. It was ambitious but a logical next step in many ways and something that we emphasised as common sense (albeit a radical common sense). If there are vacant properties they should be put to use: housing need before greed.
     We cannot talk about the specifics of how we got in, but once in we set up organising rotas for the space, teams to handle aspects such as maintenance, residence, defence, media, and community and support building. The building, a former homeless hostel, had been vacant for three years but was in surprisingly good nick, so we set to work. With everything ready to go and the building publicly launched on the 3rd of July, we opened negotiations with Dublin City Council also.
     What are you hoping to achieve? And have you had any contact with the council?
     Initially we were more than happy to form some type of deal. Our position was modest: we wanted this building put to use—who by was not the most important, be it council, community, charity, or network, as long as it was put to use. We wanted a guarantee of this. If this space could not be used we wanted a swap agreement on another property, work on community facilities, and a broader range of points connected to our demands.
     DCC entertained these demands, but in the end they sent an ultimatum, offering only a possible partnership in the future and requesting an immediate vacating of the property, with legal proceedings, including an injunction, to follow if necessary. We were prepared for this and had built huge media support, local community support, and called a rally for the day that DCC’s final offer was due to come in. We rejected DCC’s offer.
     Following on from this was deafening silence from DCC until later the next week. Three letters were sent to the hostel, one to Séamus Farrell and Aisling Hederman and one to general “trespassers.” They threatened to sue us for full costs in terms of damage to the building and any legal costs.
     Targeting two specific members of the network was malicious, Aisling herself a single mother with two children. Vans and cars have been outside filming the building for days, and on Monday the 20th an unmarked van and a DCC van pulled out, scouting the back entrance and filming the back of the building.
     What has been the local community support like?
     Amazing. The local community sent a woman up to meet us early on. Tenants and businesses wanted reassurance on our actions. She backed us 100 per cent. We followed this up with stalls and door-knocking, where again support was overwhelming. Many stories came forward from former residents of the hostel, from local people who felt abandoned by the council and the state, and from local people who were steadfast in their willingness to help us.
     We followed this work with a community fun day in the Upper Dorset Street flats. Fifty children were out having their hair braided, faces painted, and collectively made a banner with us to put up on the hostel. We had a barbecue, and many children and parents said it was the best thing in the area to happen for a long time. That is what matters: providing for and building with the community in any of these struggles.
     The trade union movement recently passed a motion, put forward by Impact at the ICTU biennial delegate conference, recognising homelessness and the lack of public housing as a major issue. Have you received any support from the movement?
     Thus far we have had general support from more left-leaning union members and activists. They see the crossover between the community and where they work and stand with us. Outside of that we have limited support thus far but have also not reached out yet, as we have put emphasis on building from the grass roots and the community first. In the coming months trade union support will be crucial for us and to tackle the wider homeless and housing crisis.
     What can class-conscious trade unionists and community activists do to support this action?
     Firstly, publicise what we are doing. Secondly, drop down and help out and donate. Thirdly, build support from within your union to help and work with us in the future. Finally, build the trade union movement itself into a fighting movement, a movement that sees and pushes class struggle. A strong radical, democratic trade union movement that fights, at the end of the day is the best thing that can help all struggles in Ireland, from our housing battles to wider community fights to more substantive change to make this a juster Ireland.
■ With thanks to Trade Union Left Forum.

Home page  >  Socialist Voice  >  October 2015  >  The Bolt Hostel story
Baile  >  Socialist Voice  >  Deireadh Fómhair 2015  >  The Bolt Hostel story