British ban squatting to tackle ‘anarchists’

  • Posted on: 12 November 2012
  • By: worker

<table><tr><td>From <a href="">Al Jazeera</a>

London, UK - "Todd" was 18 when he came to the United Kingdom from Lithuania in 2005 in search of a better life. But things didn't work out. By 2009, with the British economy ravaged by recession, he had lost his job and had nowhere to live.

"I had really bad depression so I couldn't hold a job. I ended up sleeping rough on the streets. My mental health was deteriorating... I had suicidal thoughts," he recalls.

Todd - an adopted Anglicisation of his Lithuanian name - ended up in Brighton, a town on England's south coast with a reputation for tolerance, a vibrant arts scene and a homelessness problem. It was there that he began to rebuild his life, finding a vital support network among those squatting in the town's ample stock of empty and neglected buildings and sometimes opening them up as impromptu galleries and cultural spaces.

"I call myself houseless, not homeless. We are a community and we help each other out," he explains. "There is a lot of support and there is always somebody to talk to. Living like this, you're always in control of your own life. You don't have the money to support yourself food-wise, maybe, but you can go and get it from skips. It's still the same food."</td><td><img title="we are MT" src=""></td></tr></...

But tens of thousands like Todd who seek shelter in unoccupied properties now risk arrest and imprisonment under a government-backed campaign to outlaw squatting.

Under a law in place since the beginning of September, squatting in empty residential properties in England and Wales is already a criminal offence, with those convicted facing months in prison and steep fines. The ministry of justice estimates that up to 2,000 people could be prosecuted each year.

Supporters of the law, including David Cameron, the British prime minister, argue that banning squatting is necessary to protect homeowners and landlords, to prevent associated anti-social and criminal behaviour, and to give the police and courts greater powers to evict, arrest and prosecute those engaged in it.

'Targets the vulnerable'

Recently, Mike Weatherley, the main architect of that legislation, met Chris Grayling, the justice minister, to discuss its extension to commercial properties as well.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Weatherley, whose Hove constituency is adjacent to Brighton, said that the law needed to be tougher because squatters were taking advantage of a "loophole" allowing the occupation of properties that were part-commercial and part-residential, such as pubs.

"The police like it, the public like it, it's a good law, and those who says it's not are just anarchists," said Weatherley. "These properties belong to somebody and the law for too long has been ineffectual."

But opponents say that the ban targets the vulnerable at a time when cuts to public services and benefits, high unemployment and a shortage of social housing mean that, for some, sleeping in a squat may be the last option before sleeping on the streets.

Squatting campaigners say there are also hundreds of thousands of properties being left empty and falling into dereliction even as rising rents and high property prices have left growing numbers struggling to find affordable accommodation.

"All it's doing is criminalising homeless people in the middle of a housing crisis," said Joseph Blake of the Squatters' Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) pressure group. He cited the case of a 21-year-old man, Alex Haigh, who in September became the first person to be jailed under the new law.

"The people who are being affected are those using squatting as the final means to get a roof over their head. Alex Haigh has gone to prison for sheltering in a building that had been empty for a year-and-a-half. We think squatting needs to be there as a last resort, especially in tough times."

Homelessness in many areas of the UK has risen sharply in recent years, with the latest government figures showing more than 50,000 families and individuals in need of emergency accommodation in 2012, a 25 percent rise since 2009.

Charities and campaigners argue that the actual number of "hidden homeless", including rough sleepers and those sleeping on sofas, is much higher. Up to 50,000 people are estimated to be living in squats, including about half now illegally in residential properties, and research by the charity Crisis showed that almost 40 percent of homeless people have resorted to squatting at some point, often in bleak and squalid conditions.

Talia Menezes of the Eviction Resistance squatting support network said the law change had already forced many squatters to make difficult choices between staying put illegally in residential properties or seeking alternative accommodation, sometimes finding refuge in already overcrowded commercial squats.

"There is one squat that had capacity for 15 people and recently it was holding 45 people and this includes families and people whose English was not so great," she said. "But there's been a really lovely thing where a lot of squats have opened their doors and gone, well ok, whoever needs some space. People have been trying to stop people from ending up on the street."

Eviction Resistance, which offers advice and support to those threatened with eviction, was founded by Menezes and her partner Keith Robin, a veteran political activist who died last month at the age of 56 as a consequence of a long-term brain tumour.

"I talked to him about getting a council flat because squatting is not an easy life, but he completely refused," she said. "He felt he was either going to be taking housing off a family or squatting - that was his dilemma."

Prior to his death, Robin described to Al Jazeera how the London-based network worked to delay evictions by summoning crowds to peacefully block bailiffs and police from gaining entry to squats.

"We've found that if you are obstructive but quite amiable then police and bailiffs will cut you quite a lot of slack," he said. "You can put off an eviction, sometimes for months, sometimes only for a couple of weeks. But that's all we're doing. We're trying to enable people to have somewhere to live for a little bit longer."

Robin said that some activists also planned to target residential properties in an effort to prove the new law unworkable.

"We're going to start occupying them as a political act. And we're going to call the police and say bring it on. There are quite a lot of people who are up for that. If you push someone up against a wall and you don't give them any way out then the only thing they can do is resist."

Just surviving

Squatting has a long and colourful tradition in the UK and has often been associated with political activism and countercultural protest. But media coverage of the subject tends to focus on lurid stories of dreadlocked "crusties" and anarchists moving into multi-million pound Mayfair mansions, or of homeowners returning from holiday to find their properties trashed by eastern European gangs.

One such recent headline in the sensationalist Daily Mail newspaper read: "Immigration officer comes home to find family of Romanian gypsies squatting in her house, wearing her clothes and drinking her wine (after telling neighbours she'd died)".

But Casper, a Brighton-based squatter, said there were many instances of squatters playing positive roles in the communities where they lived. He said he had been involved in art galleries, social centres, a food distribution hub and an autonomous homeless shelter which had all been run by squatters.

Other notable examples include a closed public library at Friern Barnet in north London which was re-opened by squatters and re-stocked with donated books, and the Grow Heathrow project which established a thriving organic garden with local support on land earmarked for airport expansion.

"When the government is cutting all these services that people drastically need and they're saying that people should step in to fill the cracks, well, that's exactly what we're doing," said Casper.

Mike Weatherley, though, rejects the notion of the virtuous squatter, as well as any correlation between squatting and homelessness.

"Vulnerable people should be looked after by the local authorities and that is the end of it. There is no link between homelessness and squatting, no matter how they try to link the two together to get some sympathy for their cause," he said.

"Let's be clear, we're not talking about someone who is spending a night in a doorway. We are talking about somebody who is taking somebody else's property. These are anti-capitalist people and they shouldn't be able to get away with it."

But Catherine Brogan, another SQUASH campaigner, said that most squatters were simply doing what they had to to survive.

"Living in empty buildings and eating from bins and going through rubbish is not just something that happens in the global south. That's something that's happening in the UK. I don't think it's about people being anti-capitalist. It's about people finding a way to live."



Those bastards! Fuck owning land squat the world.

Let the riots be long and brutal..

The poor and homeless are the progenitors of statelessness. They have nothing the state may threaten to take but their liberty. As their numbers grow, the state's control diminishes.

this makes me angry!

this is something i never understood: fining people who are homeless and jobless! what's the point? if you can't afford food/rent, you can't afford a fine!

it would make more sense for the government to support the squatters, thereby creating 'official' support for people, they're still human!
i very narrowly avoided being on the streets several times when i was at uni. and many of my friends didn't avoid being on the streets. these laws need to go, the government needs to go. i can probably tolerate a more socialist government but this is rediculous!

"banning squatting is necessary to protect homeowners and landlords, to prevent associated anti-social and criminal behaviour, and to give the police and courts greater powers to evict, arrest and prosecute those engaged in it."
why do homeowners need protecting?i know every landlord situation is different, some are really wealthy, some are so bad at managing their property and finances that they are loosing money, but at least they had the option of buying a place to begin with, that alone is a massive advantage that many of us don't have!so they're fine, and if they have so much money and resources that they can leave properties empty! they don't need any more help!
and the proof that antisocial behavour is caused by the fact people are squatting and NOT the fact that they feel society has given up on them and is not going to help them is where/what exactly?!
people commit crimes because they have been abandoned and feel they owe the government/big corporations nothing, because corporations exploit you, they are beneficial to you as an individual (by giving you a job for example) only as long as you are in some way profitable to them, as soon as it is more profitable to not have you around you're nothing to them! (of course there are exceptions, as with anything, but the majority are like that, especially in my experience.) people feel the government has not been there to catch them when they have fallen. which is what it's supposed to do. THIS is why people commit crimes, not because they have to live in a squat.

mr weatherly and myself need to have words....

" "The police like it, the public like it, it's a good law, and those who says it's not are just anarchists," said Weatherley. "These properties belong to somebody and the law for too long has been ineffectual." "

i think his definition of 'good' has been twisted a little bit. the police like it because it gives them more power to oppress the masses, the public like it because they are ignorant of the facts, because the government twists things to benefit itself. i've met lots of people who see squatting as a lesser evil, the general opinion i've come accross from people who don't call themselves anarchists is: 'ok the house belongs to someone and they have a right to it, but if the house is empty and not being used, what harm does it do in the short term to have someone live in it.'

it makes me glad to know that people are protesting this and helping each other. the world often seems like a place populated by selfish, greedy, unsympathetic, money-oriented fascists. but the number and strength of support networks is encouraging. we need more of them, but that they are there is definitely a good thing!

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