A day from the diary of an Advisory Service for Squatters Volunteer.
Squall 4, April/May 1993, pp.18-19.
Thursday 25th February.
“Is the Home Secretary aware that many of those who engage in squatting .... are often aggressive, intolerant and intimidating?”
So thundered the often aggressive, intolerant and intimidating MP Sir John Wheeler at the erstwhile Home Secretary Kenneth Baker. Fortunately for us all, Sir John and his inspirational leader were very far from being deceived as to the true nature of squatters. Oh yes. But as a part of that unholy triumvirate which includes armed robbers and rapists, some squatters, I am sorry to report, are not quite up to the mark.
One caller today had moved, with many misgivings, from Sheffield to London. She had no possessions, no friends living in the capital and, as yet, no job. By chance she had managed to find a room in a squatted council flat in Hackney. The young man who had originally ‘cracked’ the place had since moved to Plymouth to follow up a chance of work, so she lived alone.
One day, venturing out to the launderette, she was startled to find two council workmen battering away at an adjacent doorway. Most of us would relish the spectacle of two men, in the prime of their lives, enthusiastically engaging in this time-honoured municipal sport, but she found this a little odd, if not worrying. She rang ASS at the earliest opportunity.
She was horrified to learn that it was perfectly within the law for the owner of a property that is squatted, or his/her agents, to break into that property while the squatter was out. (So much for the Home Secretary’s observation that squatter’s are “almost invulnerable”.)
There followed a breathless monologue in which she painted a grim picture of herself returning from the launderette, or the shops, to find her home repossessed, hers elf friendless, lost in the big city and finally sleeping in Aldgate underpass with only a cardboard box as shelter.
Well, maybe, but hopefully not. Squatting isn’t an activity which should be taken lightly, neither should anyone forced into the position of having to squat, do so alone.
The only advice I could offer her was to put two strong mortice locks on the front door and keep a radio on during the day. This probably will not have consoled her greatly. What she really wanted was secure, affordable accommodation but that wasn’t a realistic option for a single, childless, dole-ite like herself.
I don ’t think her fears of sleeping rough will be realised. There are hostels which would take her in - I hope - if she was ever in imminent danger of sleeping on the street. Also, ASS may possibly be able to help her find another squat, however temporary, in an emergency. But, for crying out loud, how on earth does she expect to graduate to armed robbery at that rate?
Earlier in the day a young woman had come in to find out how to identify a property’s owner. She also wanted to know how you established if the services had been disconnected. She had found an empty house in Islington and had been in twice to check it out. The house had been trashed (so much better to leave a property empty and vandalised rather than occupied and well-maintained?) and there seemed to be no electricity. She had squatted before but had spent the last six months in private rented accommodation. She was being evicted just in time to receive her first housing benefit cheque. Clearly the landlord didn't want to be dealing with people, like her; who couldn't even get the DSS to keep up the monthly payments on his mortgage, his BMW and his satellite dish.
She had no qualms about squatting alone, neither did she have any worries about exploring a dark house on her own. She wasn't even deterred by my opinion that the squat may not last very long. If it only lasted a month it was better than sleeping in the open air. Primed with advice on how to use a mains tester she stepped jauntily out on to Saint Paul's Road, her sports bag bristling with tools, confident of finding herself a new home. It is often said that squatters are lazy, shiftless people with none of the stalwart English virtues of independence and self-reliance.
Essex man, we are told, is a great supporter of the policies of the Conservative Party, one of whose manifesto commitments was to tighten up the law on squatting. It was therefore a refreshing surprise to hear from a family man in Basildon, all tooled up and raring to go. In other ways, however, it was profoundly depressing. He was living in a one-bedroom, council flat with his wife and rapidly growing child and had to find a bigger flat before they all went crazy. Nothing I could say would deter him from squatting (though, at least he agreed not to surrender his council tenancy). He had tried local councillors, he had tried the local MP but, after two years of fruitless lobbying, had decided that they were all long on talk and short on action. I hope that squatting will provide some relief for him and his family in an otherwise intolerable situation and that he will one day get the transfer he has been seeking. I couldn't help worrying though, that his chances of getting a long-term squat in a place like Basildon may not be very good.
“You could be thrown out in a few weeks if the Council's really efficient,” I warned him.
“Efficient? Don't make me laugh.”
Squatting ASSpects - A day from the diary of an Advisory Service for Squatters Volunteer - Squall 5 - Oct-Nov 1993.