BBC: Squatters: Who are they and why do they squat?

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Jul 6 22:17:26 BST 2011

Squatters: Who are they and why do they squat?
By Caroline McClatchey - BBC News Magazine - July 6th 2011

For many people, the word squatter conjures up the image of a 
dreadlocked, middle-class, tree-hugging hippie eking out an 
alternative lifestyle in someone else's home. But with plans afoot to 
outlaw squatting, just who are today's squatters?
"I don't feel I am freeloading. I am using something that was going to waste."
Biz is a 24-year-old arts graduate who is squatting in a house in 
Bristol. She used to work in a bar but she could not get enough 
shifts to cover the rent. She is not claiming benefits and is earning 
a bit of cash by helping build furniture for a school's playground.
With the government consulting on a proposal to criminalise 
squatting, one of the big issues will be defining just who squatters 
like Biz are.
Many people's idea of squatters will be gleaned from media reports of 
young people occupying multi-million pound houses in the UK's most 
exclusive postcodes. Less frequently, there will be sensational 
stories about owners returning from holiday to find squatters in their house.
The predominant media image is one of posh, anti-establishment 
eco-warriors who spend their rent-money on parties and devote their 
energies to sustainable living. The counter-argument from squatters 
is that they often endear themselves to neighbours by fixing up 
derelict properties and establishing cafes, art galleries and 
workshops in their new homes.

But what is the reality?
Organisations and campaign groups such as Crisis, Squash and the 
Advisory Service for Squatters say a significant number of squatters 
are homeless individuals and families, many of whom have mental 
health and addiction problems in addition to not having a roof over 
their heads.
Opponents of the proposed criminalisation say it will hit the most 
vulnerable people in society at a time of government cuts and rising 
household bills.
They claim the beneficiaries will be people who own commercial 
premises and leave them empty for financial gain, such as tax 
avoidance or property speculation. They also say it will burden the 
police and justice system.
But there are other people who argue that squatters are rent refuseniks.
Mike Weatherley is the MP for Hove and Portslade, a squatting 
hotspot, and he says it is a "myth that homeless people and squatters 
are one in the same".
"For a lot of people squatting is a lifestyle. They move from 
property to property and are often anti-government, making some kind 
of protest statement. It is those people we have to stop."
He says the squatters are often well organised and well aware of 
their rights, and many engage in anti-social behaviour such as drug 
taking and fly-tipping.
There are no official figures for the number of squatters, let alone 
a breakdown of their age, location or educational background. While 
London stands out, by virtue of its sheer size, squatting is also an 
issue in many other cities including Bristol and Brighton.

The government estimates there are 20,000 squatters in the UK but 
squatting groups say the real total is more.
Squash, Squatters' Action for Secure Homes, points out that the 
number of people on local authority housing lists has nearly doubled 
since 1997 to five million and there are an estimated 650,000 empty 
properties in the UK.
Reuben Taylor, from Squash, says these places can provide for some of 
the most vulnerable people in society, such as homeless people, 
former prisoners and those with addiction or mental health problems.
"They are the majority of people who squat but they do so very quietly."
Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, carried out 
a study this year which suggested 39% of homeless people had squatted 
at some time.
Katharine Sacks-Jones, head of policy at the charity, says squatting 
is another form of homelessness, especially as some squats are in 
"horrendous" conditions.
"A lot of the debate is coloured by the so-called lifestyle squatters 
but this is very far from the reality for vulnerable homeless people 
who don't have another option."

The UK has a long history of squatting. In feudal times, if a house 
could be erected between sundown and sunrise the occupants could 
claim the right to tenure and could not be evicted.
Squatting was a big issue in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and again 
for the Diggers in the 17th Century. Founded by the anarchist Gerrard 
Winstanley, they were peasants who cultivated waste and common land, 
claiming it as their rightful due.
After World War II, squatting was a necessity for some and people 
slept in all sorts of buildings. The next wave came in the 60s and 
70s and while the country was in the grip of another housing crisis, 
there was also a cultural move towards trying out a different style of living.
Professor Lorna Fox O'Mahony, an expert in property law, says there 
are three factors associated with spikes in urban squatting - rising 
house prices, a high proportion of empty homes and an increase in the 
homeless population.
"The rise in urban squatting in the 60s and 70s was largely focused 
around council properties. Houses were lying empty rather than being 
She says a rise in the mid-2000s was also linked to rising house 
prices and a lack of affordable housing, particularly in the South 
East of England.

Prof O'Mahony says as more and more people became home owners, they 
became increasingly upset by squatters.
"People were paying mortgages and were horrified that people weren't 
paying their way."
Groups such as Crisis and Squash are warning that squatting may 
become the only option for more and more people as cuts to housing 
benefits and other front-line services start to bite.
Biz in Bristol says she will be homeless if squatting is 
criminalised, as will her 12 squatmates, some of whom are students 
who cannot afford to rent and people who are looking for work.
She says she will continue to squat until she finds a job that she 
not only loves but which also pays the rent. Though she admits she 
will probably be evicted before that happens.

Types of squatters
Deprivation-based - eg homeless people
Alternative housing strategy
Entrepreneurial - eg setting up a cafe and serving the community
Conservation - preserving buildings
Political - as a form of protest or to create a social centre

+44 (0)7786 952037
"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which 
alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung
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