All I Want Is A Room Somewhere
On the 4th December 2017, activists took over a plot of land in Bournemouth, England, to provide a safe shelter for vulnerable and homeless people who were living on the streets at Christmas. A dramatic story unfolded. It had everything, the good, the bad, the ugly and the downright illegal. This is the story of Camp Sanctuary.
In November 2017 I was asked by my friend and writer, Kimm Fearnley, to attend an event organised by the social network, Campfire Convention. Volunteers from the Hope For Food charity were giving a presentation about their work with the homeless in Bournemouth, UK. The charity, a non for profit organisation run by volunteers, was finding it difficult to engage with the local media and asked us to provide some material that would get some good press coverage for them. Over the next few weeks, we volunteered to help out at the soup kitchen and during this time we got to know many of the towns homeless people.
We set about interviewing and photographing them for a series of podcasts and articles. The stories we were greeted with were horrendous. Dark, desperate stories that rocked us. Heartbreaking tales, that at times, were, and still are, difficult to take in. We had heard rumours that activists were about to take over some land in Bournemouth with the aim of making a safe and secure sanctuary for the towns homeless. On the 4th December, that rumour became reality as private land was taken over in central Bournemouth by activists from Occupy.
Word soon spread via social media about the camp and local people soon rallied round, giving donations of food, tents, sleeping bags and medical supplies. Pretty soon people started arriving at the camp and it quickly became the focus of the community. Generous gifts of warm clothes were arriving in their droves. People from all walks of life were engaging with the camp and its inhabitants. The public were welcomed in and encouraged to sit around the fire with a cup of tea and chat with both the volunteers and the residents of the camp. As the cold reality of the December weather began to hit the south coast, the residents and locals at the camp did their very best to develop and nurture a warm and welcoming environment. A real sense of community was starting to develop and along with it more support from the townspeople who were now volunteering and helping out in any way they could. Builders arrived on site and soon, a kitchen had been built and a food store too, full with donations. All of the construction was made from old wooden pallets, tarpaulins and wooden offcuts, all donated by well-wishers.
Over the next few weeks homeless people were turning up daily, some would stay, others were happy where they were. This mini-society bought its own problems with it. You have to be prepared for that and they were. The camp's residents were a real mixture, many were struggling with addiction and mental health issues. A society of inclusion was formed. There were rules. No stealing. Be nice to each other. Help out. Respect for each other was paramount. If you broke these rules, you were asked to leave. Simple.
After a week or so a notice of eviction from the landowners was served on the camp and a court date was set. January 2nd, was the day that the Bailiffs would arrive to carry out the eviction order. The notice didn’t seem to have any effect on the moral of those inside, indeed, it seemed to spur them on even more. Supplies were still arriving almost hourly and the feeling was that somehow, by some sort of miracle, the camp would survive. Others thought differently and had started to make plans to depart and relocate. Time was ticking away. Despite the threat of eviction they continued to take people in. Children from the area had baked cakes and bought them along with colouring books and crayons. Artists within the group began to paint the walls and a Christmas tree was donated and decorated by some of the local elderly. Spirits were high.
A few days after the eviction notice was posted the landowners made a visit to the site. They had walked in off the street and strolled around the camp, talking on their telephones. As they left and went to their cars, they looked on through the gates and words were exchanged. This raised tensions to a new height. Pictures were taken and angry words were traded through the gates. Each side standing its ground and making their points heard. The occupants of the camp saw this encroachment by the landowners as harassment.
Preparations for the eviction were beginning to take place. The gates had now been barricaded and chained up from the inside and the talk of the camp was how best to prepare for the inevitable consequences that eviction would bring. Life continued much as it did every day. People arrived, they were fed and watered and offered a tent and a sleeping bag and a place to store their meagre belongings.
As the morning of the 2nd January, 2018 arrived, the sky was grey and leaden. The rain was falling and everyone was preparing for the arrival of the Police and the Bailiffs. The mood was one of defiance. Battle plans were being laid down and people huddled in corners to discuss their tactics. The smell of a hearty English breakfast being prepared filled the air and volunteers made sure people had food and a hot drink inside of them. The air was dank and cold. Little did anyone know what drama was about to unfold.
The rain was now falling hard. The barricades were set and people inside were ready for whatever was coming their way. Masks were donned, mobile phones were readied in preparation to film the eviction. Other activists arrived to support their brothers and sisters in arms. The sound of a heavy-duty disc cutter starting up raised the temperature to boiling point as the Bailiffs began to cut off the chains on the gate. People manned the barricades shouting “ Shame on you!’ Shame on you!” at the attendant Police officers and officials. As the crowds jeered and tried their best to obstruct the progress of the authorities, it was noticed that the eviction warrant had not been signed or dated by the judge — eviction papers need to be hand signed by the judge on the day of issue for them to be legally binding. This was soon pointed out to the Police officers who upon realising the illegality of the paperwork called off the eviction on legal grounds.
The landowners, who had accompanied the Bailiffs, had already started to tear down the encampment. The tensions were rising rapidly. Peoples homes, their tents and possessions were being pulled apart and destroyed in front them. Scuffles between protesters and officials broke out. Insults were traded and the Police had to step in. No arrests were made.
The ground was cleared of people whilst three activists remained on site. One stood on the roof of the kitchen, another had climbed onto a shipping container chaining himself to it. A third man climbed the walls surrounding the land. As the landowners carried on clearing the site, the activists sang songs and called out to each other. They sang — Wouldnt It Be Lovely, from the film, My Fair Lady, “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air, Oh wouldn't it be lovely?” the words hitting home like never before.
The three men stayed in their positions. Supporters bought them food and handed them blankets. I left to process the day's images. It had been a day of high emotion and I had planned to return later.
A few hours had passed when I got a message saying that the activists had retaken the site and were in the process of securing the camp again. I quickly returned to see what had happened. The atmosphere was a mix of jubilation and anger, jubilation that they had retaken the land, anger because of the way the landowners and the authorities had acted.
It was time to regroup and rebuild. People returned with tools and supplies and the rebuilding began. In just a few days, the camp was restored to its basic needs. The previous day's carnage lay all around.
After working to clean up all day, a few weary souls sat down to dinner around the fire. There were around ten people on site. Martyn, a Polish man who had recently been made homeless, had arrived and was busy constructing a new food store out of palettes. He worked relentlessly all day. Food was being cooked and Martyn was encouraged to take a break and eat. “No thank you,” he said, “I have work to do.”
The light was beautiful. Darkness was falling rapidly. The street lighting shined down and lit the tarpaulin wall of the kitchen. The skies were growing grey and menacing once more. The camp was lit with that beautiful half-light that you get before a storm. No one knew it at the time, but this was to be the last supper.
At the crack of dawn the following day the Police, Bailiffs and landowners returned, armed with a high court order and re-took possession of the land. Arriving early in the morning they soon cleared the site of the few people that remained. The new structures were torn down and what was left of peoples possessions were thrown onto two bonfires in the middle of the land.
Word had soon got round and supporters of the camp rallied together to gather what they could. They arrived with shopping trolleys and bags in the vain hope of rescuing what was left. A few belongings were saved.
As workmen arrived to clear the site, a few protestors began to gather. People were upset. Nobody knew where the few remaining people on the site had gone to. Frantic telephone calls were made, tears were shed.
As the land was cleared, security arrived and made their presence known. The landowners started to leave and as one of them drove off he smiled and gave a V for victory sign. The Police left and a few more protestors arrived with placards. After a few hours, the gates were locked and life carried on as normal. People walked past the site, many oblivious to what had taken place there over the past month. A little community had been formed and it supported others in need of help and with a lot of help and donations from the public, they made something happen. They provided shelter and a safe sanctuary. For a while.