I'm a part-time graduate student. I work for an NGO. I volunteer with a children's charity. I'm an environmental campaigner. And I'm a squatter.
Without the last thing, I would never be able to do the others. Squatting is not something I do on the side; its fundamental to this mode of existence. It's not my way of dropping out of society, its what enables me to engage with it. My income would not even cover the rent on a room in a shared house. More and more young people are finding themselves forced to stay in their parents houses well into their twenties, and when they finally do manage to get out it's generally by working in a job they don't like, to live in a house they don't want to live in, in an area they can't wait to get out of.
Squatting is not just back in the news, it is also fighting for its existence. At the same time as the coalition government is cutting jobs, benefits, and services, they are also quietly looking into ways to make squatting more difficult, preferably impossible. The Big Society, as has been much observed, basically involves the rich telling the poor that it's time for them to look after themselves. Community projects will no longer be funded: if people believe they are important, they will have to work for free. If young people would like the privilege of an education, they will have to be prepared to take on tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt. Every two minutes someone is losing their home, as housing benefits are slashed and mortgage defaults climb.
As squatters, we can work for free in our communities, looking after each others' kids, growing food, helping fix each others' houses, running workshops and exhibitions. We can set up free schools to teach ourselves - we can even get accreditation for our free degree programmes, and challenge the institutional stranglehold on "official" higher education. We can keep roofs over our own heads, without having to be dependent on the goodwill of the state to provide us with housing benefits or council housing. We can make choices for ourselves, a privilege usually reserved for the rich, about where we want to live, what we want to do with our days, and what we want to eat.
Property ownership is a radically skewed and unfair institution. Women, ethnic minorities, and young people are proportionally unlikely to own property. Our government of wealthy white men is determined to steal from the poor and give to the rich, and their attacks on squatting are just as much a part of this agenda as their cuts to essential services. The virulent defences of private property which come up whenever the press report on someone moving into an empty building are the enforcement of the interests of the rich, powerful, and generally white, male, minority. But together, we can build communities that we want to live in, and lives that we want to lead.
The negative representation of squatters at present and squatters’ subsequent hostility towards the media is a very real threat to the movement as a whole. It is a threat recognised by us all but not easily addressed.
It seems symptomatic of these discussions to descend into debates surrounding class and capital (both financial and cultural) which are largely irrelevant and a diversion from what is in question: the fundamental and unquestionable truth that an empty building is waste at its worst.
In our current squat and squats previous, we have used buildings to host lectures, workshops, meals, games... activities that we put great effort into ensuring benefit both the immediate community and wider society. Such activities could not have been executed without the use of squatted spaces and such spaces would have been lying dormant were we not in them!
Our squat is our home and it houses students, artists, musicians and youth workers alike. There is a widespread false assumption that squatters do not participate in society – we are very much engaged with society, on many levels, and could not do so in the same way were we not squatting. It is interesting that the word ‘squatter’ itself seems to have become a politically charged and negative term, while ‘tenant’ has not. In my previous, rented accommodation, 8 out of 10 claimed housing benefits and were relatively unproductive. The previous tenants had caused £30,000 worth of damage to the house – because their parents paid their rent and they had no value nor respect for buildings. Yet where were the news stories terrorising tenants?!
Britain’s empty buildings are a hive of activity – for this we should be proud and supportive.
There were no journalists loitering outside the door of the freeschool that happened in London last August. The police did come by, asking in not quite so many words, why were there lots of hooded black boys in my home, and if they were anything to do with the arrest they’d just made down the road. They were soon on their way. Ten days of free educative workshops for local teenagers; delivered for free by UN lawyers, government advisors, undergraduates, and community organisers; covering economics, politics, African Liberation movements, how the media works, and how to get a squat. Instead of media coverage, there was curiosity and support from the neighbours. I could use my home as a public space with confidence because I knew the owner of the building which I was squatting would like the project, and that the teenagers coming would respect it as my home. I was able to dedicate three weeks full time voluntary work because I don’t pay rent. I don’t sign on either, never have. I earn a living part time with flexible hours, I work the rest of the time for free on social projects in my community where I have worked and squatted for five years.
Now we are working out how these teenagers can continue to live in their communities whilst continuing their studies, and contributing positively to society. Oh, and being independent young adults despite the fact that their EMA is gone and that they cant find a job. They couldn’t afford rent for miles around even if they sacked in college and found a full time job. The only way they could move out of their parents' and be independent, like other nineteen year olds, is to squat. That way they can go to college, eat healthily, live near their families, work part-time, continue volunteering at the local youth club and enjoy independence, because they won’t need to pay ludicrous amounts of rent, and they won’t risk going to jail for it. Even that will only work if we protect squatters’ rights, and accept the fact that while there are empty buildings and homeless people, squatting makes sense. There are plenty of laws to protect homeowners, neighbours, and property. But how many laws are there to protect people's time? which is how I define privilege, and is the reason that I squat.
samiramohammed "I was not under 16, not pregnant and they could not guarantee any hostels since there were 'a lot of homeless people that Christmas'"
As a recent graduate (with a hefty loan to my name) I found myself ready to live independently, having learned how to look after myself , I believed I was ready to start my own life. Going to university you are led to think that after gaining your degree you are able to obtain all the markers of an ‘adult status’, that is to: gain employment. Find accommodation and no longer rely on your parents for an income. Sadly I found this belief to be so far away from my material reality.
Initially I was forced to move back to my parents house because I could not find any paid employment that could cover rent in a bed-sit flat, never mind a shared house. When my mother struggled to cover the costs for both of us, I was kicked out and with nowhere to go and no job I became reduced to yet another homeless statistic. I had become another young person stuck in a catch 22 situation. This story is too common amongst young people in London, particularly in this economic climate. With the collapse of the youth labour market, a lack of stable full time jobs and a shortage of affordable housing, many of us are finding ourselves increasingly marginalised, isolated and excluded from actively participating in society. Luckily I was able to stay at a squat and I did not have to put myself in any risky situation. The council were unable to provide me with any form of accommodation since I was not ‘a priority’ i.e. I was not under 16, not pregnant and they could not guarantee any hostels since there were “ a lot of homeless people that Christmas”.
If I had not squatted I would not have found any long-term shelter nor food so for me squatting was not just an alternative option to paid accommodation, it was vital for my basic survival. I found myself amongst a network of people who were all supportive, I became involved with other projects that helping the community and providing a space where learning and skill-sharing takes place. I helped run a free school, a space where the public could access workshops and learn about any given subject matter of interest. From my understanding squatting allows a self-sufficiency for people who’s circumstances otherwise would have resulted in decreased life-chances. It enables a dignified way of living in a time where society has reduced our opportunities.