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Domestic violence campaigners have occupied the historic Cheltenham Road Library to protest a lack of social housing.

The century-old library closed in February, and is set to be demolished and developed into private housing. The activists, from feminist campaign group Bristol Sisters Uncut, highlighted the city’s lack of housing for domestic violence survivors, describing the sale of the library as “turning a valuable community space into a profit-making venture which will only benefit greedy developers and the privileged few”.

“There are currently only 63 beds in refuges in Bristol and survivors often get stuck there for months at a time whilst waiting for a new home.

“There is a desperate need for more housing and supportive spaces for survivors and yet the council continues to sell off public buildings to private developers with only profits in mind.”

Campaigners hope to block the development of the site and keep it as a community resource, creating a workshop and events space for women and non-binary people.

Credit: Bristol Sisters Uncut

“Empty buildings must be transferred into the hands of the community so we can create the homes, refuges and community spaces we need,” the group said. “We invite all women, trans and non-binary folk to join us.”

The occupation is the latest chapter in the story of a site that has been essential to the community for a century. A popular library opening in 1901, It was largely destroyed in a 1941 bombing, before opening again in 1956. In its time it has also been an old bindery, re-sowing and re-coating books from across Avon Libraries, as well as a storage space and community art studio.

The original, pre-war Cheltenham Road Library. Credit: Bristol Libraries and Archives

The library after a 1941 bombing. Credit: Bristol Libraries and Archives

There was an outpouring of love for the library as it was closing earlier this year, with resident Sally Juniper describing it as “a comforting and safe way to find friends and begin an independent life here as an elderly woman.”

Still important to the community: Cheltenham Road Library before its closure earlier this year. Credit: Dean Ayotte

Credit: Dean Ayotte

The council has pointed out that a replacement for Cheltenham Road Library will be opened at the former swimming baths on Gloucester Road, as part of the Bristol North Baths redevelopment.

Meanwhile Sisters Uncut activists are determined to keep the empty building in the community, describing the sale as “a symbol of the rampant gentrification that is sweeping across the city,” while “inadequate housing is putting the lives of those who have experienced domestic violence even more at risk.”

“We are going to be here for as long as we can until we get removed,” campaigners avowed.

Credit: Bristol Sisters Uncut

Responding to the group’s concerns, Bristol mayor Marvin Rees said: “I pledged to improve housing priority for victims of domestic violence as part of my election campaign and since then I’ve been working with many organisations, charities and experts on this topic. I met with Sisters Uncut to discuss their campaign I listened to their views. We share many aims and I took their feedback, along with that of many others, into account when Cabinet agreed a new approach to housing priority.

“It is a sad truth that many people in Bristol are still living in fear,” the mayor continued, “and we need to work together to support them and help people rebuild their lives – having a home to call their own is a vital part of this. However it cannot just be about housing priority for Domestic Violence victims, because there are all kinds of vulnerable people in difficult situations who urgently need housing.

“In a perfect world there would be enough for everyone, but we all know this isn’t a perfect world. That’s why we’re working extremely hard to increase the supply of homes in the city.”

Correction 27.03.17: This article was corrected to remove a sentence that said there was uncertainty over whether the new Gloucester Road library will be council-run and whether Cheltenham Road staff would keep their jobs. The Gloucester Road library will be council-run and no staff will lose their jobs.

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Read more on: bristol city council, domestic abuse, feminism, libraries, photography, protest, women

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