Autonomous Croydon: ELL goes inside the squatters community giving hope and haircuts to the homeless

Inside the Autonomous Cafe And Bookshop Pic: Alice Chapman.

By Faramade Olaitan and Alice Chapman

From the outside it appears to be nothing but an abandoned old ZiZi’s pizza restaurant not far from the centre of Croydon, covered in peeling posters for long forgotten events. Behind this scruffy facade, is a place that is home to a thriving collection of people, providing free coffee, live music, and on this day in particular, free haircuts for rough sleepers and squatters.  

The Autonomous Café and Bookshop is part of the Reclaim Croydon squatter’s community and along with seven other abandoned buildings scattered around the local area, over 90 people have a free roof over their heads because of it.  

Outside. Pic: Alice Chapman.

The Reclaim Croydon collective aims to give the destitute a place to feel welcome and humanised.  

Sam*, one member of the collective told Eastlondonlines: “We started this whole thing around seven months ago, homelessness in Croydon is a massive problem, there are just no community spaces for people to go, which makes crime levels over the roof.”

The space is run on a basis of equal responsibility for everyone involved, there is no hierarchy, and it, according to those involved, gives those who are homeless a sense of purpose.  

“Sometimes you are making coffees, sometimes you’re on the roof with a crowbar, so everyone does everything I guess,” Sam explains. 

It is also run without using any money. Cafes often donate coffee and tea, and shops or people living in and around Croydon donate food.  

‘Some of the local cafes have said they think it’s awesome what we’re doing, so they’re happy to contribute to the cause’ Sam recalls.  

Inside the building. there are bookshelves and a clothing rail for donated items.

When Eastlondonlines visited the site recently mutual aid group Empowering the People were there to provide free meals to people on the streets, spreading the word about avenues for free shelter, sanitary products and toiletries, heaters and free haircuts.   

Empowering the people aims to humanise rough sleepers and break down stereotypes about them surrounding drugs and alcohol.  

Rough sleeper’s site in Croydon. Pic: Alice Chapman.

Empowering the People says it is rooted in the mutual aid concept and reciprocity, as opposed to a one-way system of giving, empowering self-sufficiency and addressing the root cause of problems. It stresses it is not a charity which has a hierarchy, a business model and paid employees.

‘‘Anyone who has energy and empathy should be a part of the movement’’ said Marlon Kameka, one of the volunteers.  

In freezing temperatures, members of the group visited rough sleepers in tents along the streets of Croydon, handing out essentials and directing them to the ACAB for free haircuts.  

Sam added: “It gives me so much hope, especially for Croydon, you just hear about stabbings and deaths on the news but then when you come here it’s like sh*t loads of talent and a badass community. When you get stuck in the homelessness limbo, you become a statistic and you are robbed of your autonomy. You don’t get to do the normal home stuff, you forget the motor skills of being in your own place and looking after yourself. So, we teach people how to squat, to do electrical work, and build their own shower, we teach people how to do it because no one else is going to.” 

“People are gaining their autonomy back, all people need is four or five months in one safe place, enough time to find a job, and figure out their lives, which is virtually impossible if you don’t have anywhere to base yourself.”

Dylan*, another one of the occupants said: “We are sold this illusion of being far away from homelessness, differing ourselves from those on the streets, but we are all a lot closer to it than we think. In the past year and a half that I have been squatting, I have found a stronger sense of community than in my whole twenty years living in London.” 

Reclaim Croydon regularly hold events such as the rough sleeper’s haircut, open mic nights and other live music, publicised in more detail on their Instagram page.   

*Some names have been changed

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