On a sunny Sunday afternoon in October, shoppers in Brick Lane’s trendy thrift stores found themselves part of a political protest they hadn’t bargained for. A 12-meter long banner descended on them, telling a local story much unspoken about. It read: “Tower Hamlets cuts hope for survivors.”
The banner was the first step in Sister’s Uncut’s fight against the closure of a local hostel closure for vulnerable women. Women who were mothers, daughters, survivors of domestic violence and campaigners alike joined in banner-making to protest the closure of the Hopetown hostel in Whitechapel. At the time it housed 118 vulnerable women, but plans were to close it down, and open a new hostel in the borough with space for 37 fewer women.
Four months later, the hostel would close as planned. After months of campaigning, it seemed the campaigner’s efforts were not enough. Hopetown hostel would cease to exist as the women who relied on it knew it; 37 women would be displaced, and less provision would exist for vulnerable women who may rely on it in the future. Still, you’d be mistaken if you thought their efforts were in vain.
When Eastlondonlines reported on cabinet documents detailing the closure of Hopetown hostel, it was barely covered in the media. Dry council minutes could not capture the reality of what this decision would mean: months of upheaval not just for the women who called Hopetown a home, but for women who may rely on its services for years to come. The details within the documents justify the hostel’s closure on the ‘basis of an oversupply’ of beds, despite the hostel being at 100% capacity. As shocking as these details may be, the chances were that most of this information would go unseen by the general public.
Sister’s Uncut’s made it their mission to ensure that wasn’t what happened. On November 4 2017, the campaign group sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request requesting the data on which this decision to close Hopetown was made. Tower Hamlets responded saying that the data had been mislaid. Weeks later the council would contact ELL to say that they had found the data, and it had never been mislaid in the first place. It seemed, at last, that Sister’s Uncut had gotten the council’s attention.
They wouldn’t stop there. Four days later, the feminist group would grind the council’s Health and Wellbeing Meeting to a halt. They stood in solidarity with a Hopetown resident, asking the councillor with responsibility over women’s hostels: “Denise Jones, in your position as Cabinet Member for Health and Adult Services, can you help me?” After the meeting, a number of women at the Hopetown hostel would find that their housing situation had changed for the better. Some would be given priority status on the council housing waiting list. Others who had been offered private accommodation in the area of their abusive ex-partners, which they could not afford, would find themselves given a place in the new hostel.
These successes are just the ones that are documented. Behind the scenes, more work was taking place. Throughout the months that ensued after the decision to close Hopetown, East End’s Sisters Uncut would meet weekly to support, advise, and tirelessly plan campaigns to prevent the hostel’s closure. They would facilitate a legal meeting for one woman with language barriers, who was offered mixed accommodation, despite the violence she had suffered at the hands of a man, and religious requirements that left her frightened of the move.
So, how did this tiny campaign group follow-on to make such a big change? Sister’s Uncut cared when it mattered the most. This is just one way that a woman’s campaign groups made a difference to the lives of women at a disastrous point in their lives. They are often unspoken of examples of the work that goes into making a successful campaign. They are the example that amidst a climate of cuts, closures and funding changes, ordinary people can make a difference.
Sister’s Uncut is just one campaign group fighting for change. If you’re concerned about domestic violence, there are many things you can do to help. ELL has curated a list of local campaign groups that you can support below. Use our hashtag #RighttoRefuge to raise awareness locally. You can also write to your local MP or councillor, to enquire about cuts to domestic violence services, hostel or refuge closures, and the impact of proposed government changes on women’s refuges and hostel provision. Finally, you can help us to cover local campaigns more successfully. Please comment below with other examples of campaign groups, charities, or anyone making a difference in the fight against domestic violence, in your local area.
Follow our Right To Refuge series this week to find out more about the domestic violence crisis in our boroughs. #RightToRefuge