8.1 Discussion Topics.
What is a squat? What are the arguments for and against squatting? What is your opinion? A squat is a house, flat, building or land that has been occupied, normally by a homeless person or people. These people, or squatters as they are known, live in the property without paying rent. The legal status of the squatter is complicated. In Britain your legal status could be summarised like this: it is illegal to break into a house causing damage to the building, but it is within the law to enter a property without causing damage. Once the squatter is inside a building, the building’s owner must get a court order to make the squatter leave. The objective of a squatter is to stay as long as possible in a property....free. Squatting is, therefore, far easier to do, if the house or flat belongs to the Town Council. The Town Council doesn’t take it personally if someone squats their property, and are not likely to arrive with their big brothers if you do so. If a person squats a privately owned house, there is often conflict between the house owner and the squatters. If the police arrive they will invariably take the side of the homeowner. On the other hand, it takes the Council longer to evict the squatter, and as a consequence most squats are on council estates (government owned subsidised rented housing) in big cities. The 1970s and the 1980s were, perhaps, the ‘golden age’ of squatting in Britain as well as in many other countries. Margaret Thatcher brought in draconian laws making squatting more difficult during the 1980s, but there are still many squats (the number being tens of thousands) and there will continue to be as long as there are housing problems.
Do they exist in your country? What kind of people normally live in these type of places? The answer to the first question is almost certainly ‘yes’, although possibly not on a scale with Britain. Holland and Scandinavia are places with very high numbers of squatters. Most people will say that squatters are young people, such as punks and hippies, who never wash and live the life of artists without ever actually doing anything. This is not always the case. When you consider that all the world’s shantytowns, refugee settlements and gypsy encampments are types of squatting too, then we can see that we have a very narrow view of an enormous problem. It could be argued that squatting is the result of a general malaise in our societies.
Is there a problem of homelessness in your city? Where do the homeless sleep? How do they survive? The answer is that if you come from a capital or big city the answer, again, will be ‘yes’. In Britain, Northern Europe and North America, the homeless situation is particularly depressing as the winters are so cold. It is common for drunken tramps and homeless people to fall asleep in sub-zero conditions and not wake up. In the USA there are frequently problems with homeless people who become so desperately cold that they break into empty buildings and start fires to get warm... and them the building catches fire. Shop doorways are a common place to sleep as they provide shelter, and don’t involve travel. The problem is increased by the fact that it is almost impossible to get a job, if you have no home; and also almost impossible to get a home, if you have no job. Begging in the street becomes one of the more ‘dignified’ ways of getting money; theft and prostitution being some of the least.
In London there are an estimated 70,000 homeless people. The town council has 100,000 empty flats. Discuss. Obviously, it is very difficult to say exactly how many people are homeless, but you need to consider that many people go from house to house staying with friends (‘sofa-surfing’) and don’t actually have a place of their own either. However you speculate, the number is always enormously high. London is full of homeless people. Squatters argue that they are actually doing a service by maintaining the upkeep of the house or building. If the property is left empty, they say, pipes freeze in the winter then burst, the plumbing rusts, the garden becomes overgrown, slates fall off the roof and water gets into the house and causes expensive damage. Many squatters also criticise the Council for their cynical attitude to leaving property empty. There have been many cases of the authorities vandalising their own flats so that squatters cannot move in.
Imagine that you find yourself homeless, jobless, friendless, penniless and without a family. How would you feel? Some interesting adjectives to describe your predicament would be ‘rock-bottom’, ‘down-and-out’, ‘desperate’, ‘destitute’, ‘distraught’, ‘lonely’, etc.
What could you do to reconstruct your life? How would you begin? Well, first you would need help. You could go to the social security and as for welfare money for ‘N.F.A.’ (‘No fixed abode’, meaning ‘no permanent address’. This is a fixed amount of money that you get each day that gives enough cash to buy the minimum of necessities; food, drink, etc. Another option would be selling a homeless magazine. In Britain there is a famous one called ‘The Big Issue’. You buy a quantity of the magazines and you make a small profit for yourself each time you sell one. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself, without a home, money, or food, there are various centres in most big cities to help you:
Citizen’s Advice Bureaux. (CAB) You will find one of these organisations in every major town (2000 centres in total). They offer free, impartial, independent advice, on not only housing and homeless problems, but just about everything else too: the law, rights, immigration, tax, discrimination, employment, social security.
Centrepoint central office: Neil House, 7 Whitechapel Road, London E1 1DU. Tel: 020 7426 5300. Fax: 020 7426 5301. Emergency accommodation number: 020 7287 9134 offers advice and services to homeless people in trouble. Earls Court YMCA works with homeless young people, providing emergency accommodation and support.
St Mungo's Main Office: Atlantic House, 1-3 Rockley Road, Shepherd's Bush, London W14 0DJ. Tel: 020 8740 9968 Fax: 020 8600 3079.
West London Initiative on Single Homelessness. WISH, 2, Clymping Dene, Feltham, Middlesex TW14 0JA. Telephone: 020 8890 0187. Fax: 020 8890 0187. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org This organisation offers temporary accommodation and support to the homeless.
Shelter Line on 0808 800 44 44 (24 hours) another organisation offering support to the homeless.
The Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) an unpaid collective of individuals giving useful information and advice. They are based at: 2 St. Paul’s Road, Islington, London. N1 2QN. They also publish The Squatters Handbook, an excellent cheap guide full of vital information.
Women’s Link. 020-7248-1200. An organisation dealing in Women’s housing problems.
Also you might considering consulting the internet using the search words ‘homelessness’, ‘squatting’ or ‘hostels’ as there are many other organisations to help you too.