The Bolt Hostel Story

Interview with Seamus Farrell of the Irish Housing Network and part of the radical regeneration of Bolt Hostel

Bolt Hostel

1 – Firstly, can you tell me who the Irish Housing Network are and why you got organised?

The Irish Housing Network are a collection of 8 grassroots community housing and homeless groups. The groups include North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Committee, Help 4 the Homeless Ballyfermot, Housing Action Now, An Spreach-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 the 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 Spreach provide an anti-capitalist narrative with an emphasis on direction action and reclaiming homes, the Hub emphasis legal supports, 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 2014-2015. After much fan fair 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 emphases grassroots organising, democracy and mutual solidarity as the basis for action on this crisis.

2 – You have reclaimed the Bolt Hostel and Bolton Street? How and why did you do this?

With the network formed in May we were immediate throw 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. 4 cases a mother 6 months pregnant with a young child handed only a sleeping bag the night before, a mother of 3 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 supports were all wiling to come forward to take their case directly to DCC. We occupied their offices at Wood Quay, demanding negotiations and for these people to be provided for. After 4 hours of negotiation and a continued presence of 40-70 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 lead to negotiations with senior department staff, but no concrete tangible win and fight for 2 straight weeks with Alan and Kellie in South Dublin County Council. They had been provided with only 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 4 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 3 nights, outside DCC for another 3 nights and were injuncted for their actions.

All of these previous actions built up to the Bolt Hostel on Bolton Street. We have taken on the Council and the Department and now we felt we needed to take matters in our own hands and directly house those in need. It was ambitious but a logical next step in many ways and something which we emphasized as common sense (all be it 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, defense, media and community/support building. The building, a formed homeless hostel had been vacant for 3 years but was in surprisingly good nick so we set to work. With everything ready to go and the building publicly launched on July 3rd we open negotiations with Dublin City Council also.

3 – What are you hoping to achieve and have you had any contact with the Council?

Initially we were more then 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 in 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 facilitates and a broader range of points connected to our demands. DCC entertained these demands but in the end they send an ultimatum offering only a possible partnership in the future and requesting an immediate vacation from 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 (none) offer.

Following on from this was deafening silence from DCC untill later the next week. 3 letters were sent to the Hostel. One to Seamus Farrell and Aisling Hedderman 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 2 children. Vans and cars have been outside filming the building for days and on Monday the 20th an unmarked grey van and a DCC van pulled out scouting the back entrance and filming the back on the building. 

4 – What has been the local community support like?

Amazing. The local community sent a women up to meet up early on. Tenants and businesses wanted reasurance on our actions. She backed us 100 percent. We followed this up with stalls and door knocking where, again, support was overwhelming. Many stories came forward from former residence of the hostel, from locals who felt abandoned by the council and the state and from locals who were steadfast in their willingness to help us. We followed this work with a community fun day in the Dorset St Upper Flats. 50 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 barbeque 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.

5 – The trade union movement recently passed a motion, put forward by IMPACT trade union, at the ICTU BDC recognising homelessness and 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 grassroots 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.

6 – 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 with your union/s to help and work with us in the future. Finally, build the trade union movement itself into a fighting movement, a movement that sees an 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 justice Ireland.