Tomorrow sees a controversial new law criminalizing squatting, taking away a vital lifeline for the vulnerable. After the law was announced last year, Substance met with squat activists bracing themselves for homelessness, media smears and the end of a centuries-old right to a roof over your head.

Two young veterans of the green protest movement are in a community bookshop and library on a South London council estate. It’s stocked with political titles and posters for radical speakers. One of them is getting nervous. He thinks it’s been bugged by the police. He motions for his friend to go outside to talk about their plan to oppose government proposals to make squatting illegal. “You can’t be too careful,” he says.
This is the headquarters of Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes, otherwise known by the acronym SQUASH. It’s located at the 56a Infoshop & Social Centre in Elephant & Castle. The volunteers — most of them squatters and activists — who run the bookshop, bike repair centre and café are preparing their response to the Minister of Justice Ken Clarke’s indication that he’s going to extinguish squatters’ rights - rights which have existed in common law since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1378.
SQUASH was formed in the early ’90s when the last Conservative government tried to criminalise squatting. Now the dormant organisation has reformed to rally against the new government’s plans. As the law stands, unless squatters are caught busting open a window with a crow-bar in their hands, use gas or electricity without paying, or occupy a place where somebody is currently living, they have rights. The owners of the buildings they squat have to evict them via the civil courts. As soon as they change the locks they can live there for months, until the civil courts authorise their eviction. 
The government is changing the law to make squatting illegal. In part it’s a response to sensationalised stories about squatters invading people’s homes. One article in the Evening Standard told an emotive tale of a man begging through the letterbox of his own house to be let back in after some foreign squatters had moved in while he was away. What is less frequently reported is that taking over somebody’s home is already illegal under the 1977 Criminal Justice Act, and the police have the power to evict home invaders immediately.
“Our plan is to challenge the negative news stories of squatters taking over people’s homes,” says SQUASH member Paul Reynolds, 27, a veteran of environmental direct-action protests. “There have been so many stories recently which say that squatters can come and live in your house when you go on holiday, or when you go to the shops, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s nonsense. It has happened a handful of times and there’s already a law preventing people from doing that. We want to argue that the law already protects people from the kind of thing the scare stories in the media portray, so it doesn’t need to be changed.”
The government plans to host a consultation before any legislation is passed to abolish squatters’ rights in non-residential properties. With the help of Labour MP John McDonnell and the housing charity Crisis, SQUASH has set up a parliamentary coalition to lobby the government. Through a campaign of information and education, the coalition will attempt to convince people that the proposed change to the law isn’t fair on the poorest members of society.
“When the government is launching major cuts in public services, especially investment in housing and provisions for the homeless, it is not time to also introduce measures that criminalise people for trying to keep a roof over their heads,” said John McDonnell MP.
One misconception that SQUASH want to challenge is that of the bourgeois, freeloading squatter. They cite statistics from Crisis that the majority of squatters are vulnerable people - drug addicts, battered women and the mentally ill - not rent-dodging hipsters living free and organising conceptual art exhibitions and free parties in empty mansions, as widely reported in the media.
Until six months ago — around the time when Ken Clarke announced his plans to end squatters’ rights — it was easy to find a party every weekend at squats all over the capital. There were plenty of wild times to be had in London’s most famous squats like Squallyoaks, which occupied (among other places) the old Labour party headquarters on Walworth Road, and the VHS Video Basement, which occupied the Puss in Boots strip club in Mayfair. If you wanted to get trashed in a million-pound mansion at the weekend, you could rock up to one of these places with a bag of mephedrone and a bottle of Merlot and talk rubbish with four-hundred artists until the riot vans turned up.
Reynolds flinches at the mention of bourgeois squatters, but says SQUASH are in a Catch-22 situation. It’s difficult to present a more positive view of squatting because the homeless squatters who occupy buildings out of necessity rather than as a lifestyle choice — those whose case would earn the most sympathy — can’t afford to publicise themselves for fear of being detected. Add to which they don’t have the resources to lobby government.
“Everybody’s trying really hard to present a good image of squatting,” says a 23-year-old graduate who has lived in squats with her friends for three years. “So the only events we’re doing now are educational, like schools and workshops, to show that we don’t just break into buildings, have parties and trash them.” And squats have always been involved in community projects like at the 56a Infoshop and the Temporary School of Thought’s open lectures. This is the face of squatting — ethical and productive — the community is trying to present to the world.
The SQUASH campaign is supported by Paul Palmer, an empty property practitioner who has advised councils on the empty properties in their areas for over 20 years. “Of course breaking into someone’s home whilst they are away temporarily is criminal,” he says. “Fortunately, the government has already toughened up the laws in this area. But we’re not talking about these cases. We’re talking about long-term abandoned buildings, vacant in some cases for ten years or more, in the heart of Mayfair and the middle of sleepy old English towns. Buildings that are abandoned by their owners, where professional and ethical squatters have sought out an owner, and when one is not found, have taken up occupancy and started to repair the building.  Is this to be classed a crime? No, it’s called adverse possession, and the law allows for this, and has done since time immemorial. Why? Because we are a small island with limited resources, and every home that could be occupied should be occupied.”
But what happens if the law is changed? “A number of things,” says Reynolds. “A lot of people will go onto Housing Benefit and claim from the state to live, which will cost, at a rough estimate, between £100 million and £200 million a year.” He adds that it won’t put an end to squatting. If people are homeless and don’t have anywhere to go — and if they can’t afford a deposit to go into private housing to claim benefits — they will probably squat because it’s preferable to sleeping rough or in a hostel.
A former member of one of London’s most famous hedonistic squats sums up the future of squatting. “I guess I’ll just have to apply for a council house or Housing Benefit somewhere. Obviously we’ll protest against it, but there isn’t much sympathy for squatters and the government isn’t going to lose any friends by criminalising us. All the high profile squatting stories in the papers haven’t helped. Some squatters have claimed that by opening big mansions in the West End and publicising it, they’re bringing attention to the housing shortage or the fact that so many buildings in London are left empty. What they’ve actually done is made life a lot harder for anyone that is squatting. I’m not sure what everyone I know who squats will do. Some will do the same as me, some will keep squatting but in buildings they know no-one gives a shit about.”
Putting places that have been empty for years to good use, in other words. Who needs a law against that?
Lewis G. Parker

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