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Squats, Dumpster Diving: Sheltering the Homeless and Feeding the Hungry in London in Spite of Capitalism

Friday, 08 February 2013 11:00 By Hassan Ghani, The Real News Network | Video Report
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Calls from within government to fully criminalise squatting gather momentum. It could have serious implications for political occupations, and will it backfire on the government's plans to reduce its welfare budget?

TRANSCRIPT:

Hassan Ghani

As Britain's economists speculate over the prospects of a triple-dip recession, the future looks bleak for those already struggling to make ends meet.

Across England, the cost of renting is going up, house repossessions are on the rise, and particularly here in London more and more people are finding themselves homeless. One path out of that is squatting, but that is now under serious threat.

Tens of thousands of people have been squatting in empty buildings across the UK for many many years. But last year the government criminalised squatting in residential buildings, and now it's considering doing the same for commercial buildings. Mike Wetherly is a Member of Parliament whose been campaigning to make this happen.

Mike Weatherly, Member of Parliament, Conservative Party

"I'm no fan of empty buildings either, and I think we ought to do various things to encourage empty buildings to be put back into use. What I don't want to see is vulnerable people, and these are often very vulnerable people, drug addicts and alcohol and so on, going into these vulnerable properties, commercial ones which have been abandoned, are unsafe, they don't have sanitation, they don't have electricity. The local authorities should be looking after homeless people.

Now, some squatters have got nothing to do with homelessness, they are basically anarchists who just want to have rent-free accommodation, they're well educated and web savvy. I don't mind people having alternative views on life, and they can live the way they want to, but what they can't do is just take what doesn't belong to them and rob people of their own property."

Hassan Ghani

It's true that many in Britain do see squatters as a scourge on society, that threaten to steal their property and land. It's an image perpetuated by much of the media. So we decided to visit some squats in London and find out what they're like for ourselves.

Leon, Squatter at Rochester Square

"Welcome to One Rochester Square"

Hassan Ghani

Rochester Square is nestled in a residential neighbourhood of North London. The rare green space lay unused for years until the squatters arrived six months ago.

Leon, Squatter at Rochester Square

"We've got six rooms in the main area, and one room at the back of the kitchen. The kitchen is built in a way that all our water that we use for cleaning our clothes and cleaning our dishes is recycled back round to the toilet and used also as water to flush the toilet, saving about 70 litres a day. We have a bike workshop, where two people who are amateur bike mechanics work on fixing people's bikes, and building up new ones from spare parts.

When we arrived, there were alcohol bottles, there were hypodermic needles, there was pornography, so when we came we did a lot of cleaning up. We've tried to contact the owner, tried to show him what we've done. Unfortunately he only wanted to deal with us through his solicitor and hasn't come down to his site, to have a look at what we've done here, which is a bit unfortunate.

If you look up you can see that most of the wood is rotting, and this is what happens if you don't take care of a place."

Pete, Squatter at Rochester Square

"We have to be very careful to separate media scare stories, because there is a campaign of right wing media vilification against squatters, from the fact."

Hassan Ghani

Pete is a masters student and a part time teacher. He says that all the squatters he knows think carefully before choosing to occupy a space.

Pete, Squatter at Rochester Square

"Squatters tend to go for places which have been left empty for a very long time anyway. And if they find that this place has just been sold, or if its to become somebody's home, they're not going to squat it. A) because the legislation which existed even before the new law meant that they would be evicted very rapidly anyway as a consequence, and B) because squatters are not in the business of taking people's homes, they're in the process of putting a temporary shelter over their heads.

I wonder if many landlords didn't just talk to the squatters, as rational individuals, and they'd be able to see that actually they're not just druggies who're going to tear the place apart, but can actually improve the place."

Hassan Ghani

And he says squatters, like wider society, are composed of a diverse range of people.

Pete, Squatter at Rochester Square

"I used to believe that squatters were a subculture of people who were anarchists, and didn't work, and all had mohicans. And then I learned, actually, that they're just people. And that many of the people who were serving me food in a restaraunt, or many people in healthcare, are squatters. People who are providing essential services are squatters. They are a very diverse range of poeple. They're just people on low incomes, and they're just finding a solution to the fact that this is an incredibly expensive city to live in, and property ownership is getting more and more concentrated into fewer and fewer hands."

Hassan Ghani

London is among the most expensive places to live in the world. Ana previously rented a room in private accommodation, but even that cost her half her earnings each month. She now lives in the garden squat.

Ana, Squatter at Rochester Square

"If I'm working and I need to pay the rent, I will use more than 50% of that money to pay the rent, plus feeding, plus transportation, and basically that will mean that I will be living to pay my housing, and I don't believe that that's fair. Housing, food and health are a human right. So many people without houses, so many houses without people - why?"

Hassan Ghani

While filming at the squat, we stumbled into a gathering of neighbourhood residents, who'd come to voice their opinions on its use. And we were surprised to find that overall they were supportive of the squatters, telling us the space had previously been a den of crime.

Will, Local Resident

"If somebody owns land then what they do with it, and this is a privately owned space, it should be to a degree up to them. But if there's no action taking place, and that continues for a significant number of years, then those decisions need to be made by somebody else who's more capable. Especially because this is such a significant area of land, we're not talking about a small garden space in the middle of a few other houses, this is maybe even ten thousand square foot in the very centre of a very built up area, in very central London.

There's certain times when I feel very strongly that squatters shouldn't get into private properties, and there's certain times when I think 'go for it', I'm really pleased to see that unused spaces in central London are being used, especially when they're being used as productively as this. However, I've seen people's properties damaged in a number of unpleasant ways by people who don't have the same moral code, I guess."

Hassan Ghani

The squatters, however, have been served a notice of eviction. Their efforts to convince the local authorities to buy the land from the landlord, so that it can be used by the local community, have so far failed.

The next squat we went to see was quite different. An industrial building in south London, the Colorama squat was previously a printing workshop. It too lay abandoned for several years, until squatters arrived. It now serves as a multi purpose hall downstairs, and accommodation for squatters upstairs.

Tom, Squatter at 'Colorama'

"It was in a really really bad state, it was a complete wreck when we first moved in. I came on the second day and it took a lot of work to make it livable, and also so we could hold events here. We've got a free shop, we've got free events, free music, free movies, an info-shop, a library, for people who want to read up and access that kind of stuff. And we've got a lot of people from the community turn up, we've got families and kids running around here. We also get squatting networks, which is a very broad range of people, political types, people who are squatting just to have a roof over their heads, and the neighbourhood."

Hassan Ghani

Tom was homeless until he found this squat. He says he doesn't want to be dependent on the welfare state, and that squatting has given him the motivation and the independence he needs to change his life.

Tom, Squatter at 'Colorama'

"Before I came here I was homeless for eight months, so I had nowhere else to live. Without squatting I would have been on the streets, there was no way I could afford to live. And it's the same with a lot of people here, people who squat out of necessity. This place gives you motivation, I had no motivation, I was homeless because of the rent, and this place has given me motivation, it's given me order, it's given me structure."

Hassan Ghani

Listening to Tom it's clear that for him squatting is more than just about necessity, he has some very strong views on what he sees as serious inequality in society.

Tom, Squatter at 'Colorama'

"My dad worked forty odd years in a factory, for nothing. He had no money whatsoever. He worked his entire life, and he was a clever bloke. The people who had the privilege, had the ability to go and get that kind of stuff, that's what was given to them by birth, by their education.

Hassan Ghani

"If you can't squat in buildings like this anymore, where does that leave you?"

Tom

"Either in prison, or homeless."

Hassan Ghani

We arrived at Colorama on a Thursday, when they have their weekly people's kitchen. They open their doors to the public and provide freshly cooked meals to anyone who comes in, donations are welcome but not necessary.

So, who pays for all this food then, you might wonder. Well, we were invited to meet two squatters just after midnight, in sub-zero temperatures, to find out.

It all looks a bit unhygienic, piling through the bins of a supermarket. But these two have built up experience of where to go and what to look for, and they seem to be wearing appropriate clothing. Some of the food they find is actually quite expensive in the stores, but all of it has been thrown out, even though much of it is still edible. On this night we found plenty of fruit and vegetables, almost too much to carry, in perfect condition. Many squatters live on this supply of food which would otherwise end up in landfill. Another example, they say, of how society is wasting its resources

Laura, Squatter at 'Colorama'

"I think it's totally fine to eat the food we find in the bins, because most of it's actually quite nice. You just wash it, chop it up, cook it, and it's totally fine to eat. Most employees will understand, because they see everyday that they have to throw away vast amounts of food, and most of them will realise that it's actually a really stupid thing to do, you could just give it to people who are in need of food. Sometimes they're not allowed to give food to us, or sometimes they have to shoo us away, we're not allowed to enter the premises, and sometimes they even build like big fences, electric wires, and put padlocks in front of the bins, just because they don't want people to get food, they want people to buy stuff, this is how capitalism works. I think it's such a waste of resources, throwing food away."

Hassan Ghani

We've got one last squat to visit. This is one that critics like Mike Weatherley would possibly approve of. It's based in an abandoned pub in North London. Nathan showed us around - he lives here with up to sixteen others, spread across several floors. He says the building has been empty for around ten years, and although they moved in without asking anyone, when the landlord finally turned up and met them, he was impressed in the way they'd maintained the property, and let them stay if they agreed to leave when he wanted it back.

Nathan, Squatter

"Before we moved in, the garden was full of sewage. The whole place was derelict. We've redecorated all in here, so it looked nothing like this. It looked a real state. We've had to sort out the plumbing..."

Hassan Ghani

I asked him if he thought that other squatters who occupied a building against the landlord's wishes were essentially stealing that property.

Nathan Squatter

"I don't think it's necessarily stealing, because the idea of squatting isn't that you nick something from someone, you don't want to permanently deprive someone of a place. If a place is empty, you want to be able to utilise it to give other people a home, create more homes, if it genuinely is empty. So I'm not talking about going into a building stopping people from doing work on their home, or they've just gone on holiday, or they popped to the shops and you're in there, because that thing doesn't happen, nobody really wants to do that because A) you deprive someone of a home, and second you're going to be out on the streets because they're going to get a court order and the police are going to drag you out. There are obviously people who squat buildings that are in use, and I don't think that should be done, but you can do your homework, you can research a building and find out if it is unused and the planning permission on it and everything.

In the UK there's 700 thousand empty properties, and there's an estimated half a million hidden homeless. Squat's are a great social safety net. The fact that there's so many vulnerable people in squats goes to show how much the system is failing them, outside of squat society. I think rather than come down on the squatters, maybe we should come down on the inequality within society. There are people in this house who work, and yet still have to squat to be able to get by. More and more people are struggling just to be able to get by, because they're paying so much in rent. If the possibility was accessible to not squat, I think most people would not squat."

Hassan Ghani

"There isn't a problem when the landlord and the squatters come to an agreement, and that's probably a way forward. But a lot of the time, when the landlord and the bailiffs come to evict them, the squatters don't let the bailiffs, in, they physically stop them from getting in."

Nathan, Squatter

"When someone's got bailiffs on you, I think it's come to a point where the owner has not engaged with you at all to be able to talk with you, to come to an agreement, and they're forcing you out the property. There's a place just down the road here, it's been empty for I think seven years. It's been squatted three or four times, and each time they get the bailiffs in and evict people. And then it stands empty. You're just going to leave the building empty for another five years, can we not just stay in here until you use it? And they just force them out into the street. I can understand why people would want to resist and hold their home."

Hassan Ghani

But that's not how supporters of criminalising squatting see it.

Mike Weatherley, Member of Parliament, Conservative Party

"These buildings aren't being wasted, they belong to somebody. If I don't drive my car for a year, that doesn't give a squatter a right to drive my car, or if someone's not using their property which they've bought. So it does belong to somebody, and they are stealing something that doesn't belong to them. Anything that they say about making the premises better or improving it, is actually false. They don't run round the hoover before they leave. I've seen open fires in these, some of these buildings have been destroyed, and there is a lot of drug taking and anti-social behaviour associated with a lot of squats, not all squats, but a lot of squats. And if you talk to some of the residents that I do, that are around squats, they are very disturbed about the squats. There's late night parties, there's music, there's all sorts of people coming and going through the night, and they don't really like that type of intrusion into their lives."

Hassan Ghani

It is true that some squatters occupy buildings or land for political reasons, such as the campaign to stop a new runway at Heathrow airport, or others who object to way wealth is distributed and society is organised. But should they be imprisoned for doing so? And as for anti-social squatters:

Nathan, Squatter

"There's a whole range of squatters and squats. Just as in society you've got nice people and you've got dickheads. It's the same in the squat community, you've got the same thing. The majority of people are quite understanding. Whenever anyone goes into a home, they want to create a home, they don't want to go into a place and destroy it, because then it's shit to live there. You obviously want to make it your home to live there, so you want to keep it nice, and make it comfortable. But then there are other people who are party crews, and they like to open up a building and throw parties once in a while, and often sometimes too often. But then again, when I was a student I had more complaints from the neighbours than I do now. (When you were a student living in rented accommodation?) Yeah.

Pete, Squatter at Rochester Square

"There are cases of squats that are bad. It would be absolutely short-sighted of me to sit here and say that all squatting is good, that's not the case. But there's no evidence to suggest that squatters are any more anti-social than any other sector of the housing population. I've lived in private rented accommodation with incredible violent anti-social people, who take drugs, and listen to loud music, and are bad neighbours. Many of the most community minded people I've known are squatters.

Hassan Ghani

The squats we visited certainly seemed to be well organised, and as far as we could tell, responsible within their respective communities. But with residential squatting already criminalised, with a penalty of up to six months in prison, and squatting in commercial buildings probably next, something is going to have to change.

Pete, Squatter at Rochester Square

"The average rent in London is over £1300. There are 80 thousand empty buildings in this city, many of those are registered in tax-havens. We've got lots of companies which are absentee landlords, leaving buildings empty and speculating on them, and that's the crime. The conservative government has decided to legislate in favour of landlords to the point where it says that the right to own private property, even if you own lots and lots of buildings, and keep them empty for 20, 30 years, is so much more important than the human right to have a temporary shelter over your head, that they're willing to throw people who do the latter into prisons."

Mike Weatherley, Member of Parliament, Conservative Party

"We should do other things to encourage empty properties back into use, but that doesn't mean that we should then say 'well it's a free-for-all for everybody to go and take what doesn't belong to them'."

Hassan Ghani

Perhaps the most important question is where do these people go next, if squatting in empty commercial buildings also becomes a criminal act. Statistics show that 40% of homeless people are squatters at some point. At a time when the government is trying reduce its welfare budget, the last thing it needs is more people on low or no income joining the queue for housing benefits. Is it on route to scoring an own goal? Hassan Ghani, for the Real News, London.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Hassan Ghani

Correspondent for The Real News Network 


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