Reduced social housing, rising house prices and soaring rents make finding somewhere to live a tricky and expensive business. Radical housing options exist everywhere and squatting is one of them.
I asked some local squatters about their experiences. “Why squat?” They told me: “Squatting is a form of direct action – it’s about not looking for help from outside agencies, but sorting your own housing out. You take the time and put the effort into doing it for yourself and avoid having to go cap-in-hand to the authorities.”
“It’s direct and very easily realisable… It’s free apart from the cost of tools, house repair and maintenance, so it’s not structured towards a wage-earning consumer society. With squatting what you get is choice about where you live and who you live with. I don’t see why any bureaucrat has the right to make those crucial decisions for you.”
So what are the drawbacks?
“I don’t like getting evicted and the transience can limit the sort of projects that you get on with where you live. Things like gardening are harder to commit to if you don’t know if you’ll be somewhere for a week or five years.”
“There are also a lot of stereotypes associated with squatting… People might assume that squatters are junkies, but in fact it takes a lot to keep a place together. In a socially-deprived area, like St Paul’s or Easton (Bristol), a together group of squatters doing unpaid work can stop empty properties from becoming crack houses, with all the problems that go alongside them.”
I asked one squatter if they considered themself homeless. They said. “ If I have a squat I am not homeless, without a squat, I definitely am.”
Bristol Housing Action Movement (BHAM) started life in the 1980s when one Bristol guy returned from Holland wanting to start a political squatting movement akin to that in Holland. BHAM helps homeless people find empty buildings to live in and groups to squat with. People find out about them mainly by word of mouth – though they put up a few posters in drop-in centres and have a website. I asked them how they help potential squatters.
“The people who come to us often have nothing – no cash, no sleeping bag and are alone,” they told me. “ It is impossible to squat as an individual, because to legally occupy a property, someone needs to be in there all the time… Sometimes people will have read the squatters handbook and think they know something about squatting. The handbook is a good start, but it is quite London-centric and there are other things to think about round here. It’s not always a good idea to stick a section 6 (legal) notice in the window or on the door, for example, as it draws attention to yourself. One guy came to us wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, a huge mohican, 2 dogs, a spliff in his hand and a guitar-case under his arm, saying he wanted to crack a squat on Friday night! That way of doing things is totally unrealistic.”
BHAM also advise people on damage limitation tactics if their neighbours are less than welcoming. “We try to explain to people that if a place is empty it may be that there have been problems there in the past – the last people were on drugs, there has been noise abatement or someone has died,” say BHAM. “We tell people to do a reassurance mop-up job with the neighbours to prove their credibiliy and let people know that history on that level will not repeat.”
Squats, as housing solutions, last a varying amount of time. The famous 1994 Criminal Justice Act brought in some fast track procedures to enable landowners to get the eviction process moving faster through the courts, but as with much of that disastrous Bill, the measures don’t seem to be widely implemented. People who have struck lucky and researched property history well before moving in have kept places for years (example: famous Blue House on Brigstoke Road, St Pauls)… and some forever (rare but true). In other cases, squats last just a few days. When it comes to eviction, there exists a variety of options from leaving peacefully before the case goes to court, to taking landlords on in the courts, to actively resisting eviction. Often resistance is the chosen option if the squat, besides providing a home, also offers services to, and is rooted in, the local community, or if there is some greater reason to stay in the building, such as it being the site of inappropriate development, etc.
I asked BHAM: “What would I need if I wanted to squat?” They told me: “It’s useful to have a tent, rucksack and camping gear. Don’t stand out too much in appearance, get a posse, a bike and an A-Z and chat to people who have done it before.”
Advisory Service for Squatters is a London-based group offering information and support to squatters across the country. They have a helpline for practical and legal advice with squatting as well as producing the Squatters’ Handbook, a fine ‘how to’ guide for getting started.
Bristol Housing Action Movement (BHAM) – 07833 100399
Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS): squatter.org.uk – great links to squatting networks. Office hours 2-6pm Monday to Friday. Please ring first. Phone: 020 3216 0099 (or 0845 644 5814 land lines outside of London ) email email@example.com
The Squatters Handbook (12th edition is the latest) It’s £2 from Advisory Service For Squatters, 84b, Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX
Friends and Families of Travellers: for legal, eviction advice, and useful links www.gypsy-traveller.org
Written by Kate Burrell
First published issue 50 (Autumn 2007)
Details correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.
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