A small group of activists has taken over a building in central London hoping to house, feed and support up to 200 homeless people who would otherwise be forced to sleep outside in freezing conditions this weekend.
The handful of unpaid volunteers have dubbed the four-storey space the Sofia Solidarity Centre (SSC) and have appealed for donations of food, supplies and time.
“There’s snow on the ground, it was -3C two nights ago. It’s windy, it’s cold and people have frozen to death on the streets,” 22-year-old Zoe told HuffPost UK.
The so-called ‘Beast from the East’ has seen temperatures across the UK plummet, with no let up forecast until next week at the earliest.
On Tuesday a homeless man was found dead inside a tent in Nottinghamshire on the same day as a record 3,600-plus alerts were sent to the StreetLink app that helps rough sleepers find shelter.
The volunteers said they had taken over the space to “provide shelter and refuge” for rough sleepers. They were appealing to the public to donate supplies such a mattresses, bedding, tools and food.
The building is privately owned but is not currently used a residential building, so while the group are squatting they are not committing a crime.
Another volunteer, John, said: “We’re not sure who owns the building but I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.
“Maybe they might have a kind heart and let us keep this building. We could house 200 people here very simply, we’re not asking for a penny.”
A company called W1 Developments appears to own the property but has not yet responded to requests for comment.
Councils and charity-run shelters across Britain are offering extra accommodation to rough sleepers. When temperatures fall to zero degrees or lower for three days, special measures come into action with the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP).
This guidance for local authorities, homelessness providers, faith and community groups, provides responses in order to help prevent the deaths of people sleeping rough during winter.
But John pointed out that sometimes shelters are not the preferred option for some.
“So many people don’t want to go into shelters for myriad reasons - there could be too much drug use their, it could be bullying. People particularly in the LGBT community get bullied in shelters and that’s often overlooked.
“Maybe they’ve got an animal and they’re not allowed in with their pet,” he told HuffPost UK.
He added that rising rates of homelessness in the UK are a sign that charities aren’t the only solution to the issue. “Homelessness has increased year on year on year on year so charity has failed.
″Now it’s time for solidarity, to help each other.”
The large number of empty properties in London - 20,000 according to one estimate - has prompted a number of squatter takeovers.
They later moved into an even more extravagant £25 million property near Buckingham Palace.
A spokesperson for London Mayor Sadiq Khan told HuffPost UK:
Sadiq changed City Hall policy to open cold-weather shelters more often, by opening them on every night temperatures fall below zero. Under the previous Mayor’s policy, shelters only opened when three consecutive nights of sub-zero temperatures were forecast. Sadiq did not believe this policy went far enough to help those sleeping rough in the capital, and as a result of his new policy, cold-weather shelters have been open for 35 nights since the beginning of December, compared to the 28 nights they would have been open in this same period under the previous Mayor’s policy. This is the highest number of nights since 2012/13.”
“Sadiq also worked with all 33 London boroughs to help them change their local policies and operate in the same way. These shelters have been open since last Friday throughout the recent cold weather, and the work of boroughs, faith-based organisations, and City Hall means that around 1,000 spaces have been available every night across the capital to those who need them.”