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“Squatting”… on dangerous grounds

New legislation may put thousands of people on the street simply for trying to survive and seek shelter.

Kyle Robertson

In 1649 a group of poor peasants calling themselves the True Levellers occupied a patch of disused land at St. George’s Hill in Surrey, living and cultivating it collectively in the hope that their movement would inspire other have-nots to join their cause. While the group, later more commonly known as the “Diggers”, eventually lost momentum and died out, the temporary community they established was one of the first well-known instances of public squatting in the United Kingdom’s modern history.

“Squatting” is a legal term that describes people occupying abandoned or unused areas of land and/or buildings that they do not own, rent or otherwise have permission by law to use.

While many people may not have any experience with squatting, the phenomenon is worldwide; estimates show that there are nearly one billion squatters globally, most easily recognizable in the massive shantytowns and slums constructed on the edges of cities in Asia and Africa.

Given time, many squatter settlements can grow into urban neighborhoods nearly indistinguishable from normal housing; however, in the beginning most have minimal basic infrastructure with no sewage, electricity or drinking water.

Despite the scale of squatting and its association with lack of proper social housing programs, however, many legal experts say the issue is largely absent from policy debates and rarely seen as connected to problems with homelessness.

In academic circles squatting has been divided into five basic categories: deprivation-based, for homeless people looking for a place to live; alternative housing strategy for those disillusioned with waiting lists for government housing programs; entrepreneurial, for those trying to service the needs of a community such as founding a cheap bar or club; conservational, or camping out around a monument or other historic site because its owners have allowed it to decay; or political, when activists encamp around social centers to make a statement of protest.

In many countries squatting is against the law and can be considered a major offense, while in others it is treated as an informal conflict between landowners and occupants. Property law has traditionally favored owners, but squatters and owners can sometimes come to understandings that let the squatters maintain their status or even become legitimized owners; in these instances squatters usually use the argument that ownership is theirs by default because the landowner showed no interest in upkeep or use of the disputed area.

Squatting has a long tradition in UK housing and activist history. Following World War II many ex-servicemen and their families occupied sites including former military bases to luxury apartment blocks due to a lack of housing plans to accommodate the swelling population. The 1960s saw the rise of the Family Squatting Movement, which sought to obtain squatting rights to unused areas for families on the Council Housing waiting list. After long and bitter political battles, several London boroughs agreed to sign over empty properties to squatters.

The 70s saw a shakeup in the squatting movement as squat communities were settled by college dropouts and anarchists who simply rejected the right of landowners to charge rent and believed free living was a revolutionary form of political action. Local housing authorities during this period engaged in a practice of systematically destroying an unused property and rendering it uninhabitable by pouring concrete into toilets and sinks and smashing windows and ceilings to make buildings unattractive for squatting.

And now a new amendment, backed by conservative MPs and David Cameron’s coalition government, has made all residential squatting in the UK a criminal offense.

The law, put into effect this month, will make squatting punishable by up to six months in jail and fines of up to 5,000 pounds. Many eviction notices have already been posted in squatting communities in and around London and lawmakers say the new legislation will put an end to “squatter’s rights” and put power back in the hands of landowners.

Current law in the UK contains provisions for squatters. In the 1977 Criminal Law Act, a section is devoted specifically to property rights. The section defines violence for securing entry to a disused building as an offense, regardless of whether that violence was directed at other people already living there or simply at property, like breaking down a door to get in. Squatters, however, have the right to put up a legal warning paper after taking up residence that claims the property as theirs by forfeiture and anyone attempting to enter uninvited, even the owner of the property, can be subject to criminal punishment.

Recent revisions, however, have put more power in the hands of landowners. As of 1995 landowners and people who had been intending to live on the property are granted right of entry to squatted buildings and can at any time demand the squatters vacate. If they choose not to leave the police can be called to force them out.

Historically, there is also a common right law that squatters can use to rightfully take possession of an abandoned site after 12 years of continual unopposed occupation, but it is often difficult for squatters to produce proof that they have lived in a place for that amount of time.

Laws were also passed in 2005 that enabled the Land Registry to defeat applications for squatting to become legal occupation by a simple objection.

Charitable organizations, however, fear the impact that criminalization of squatting will have on homelessness. Estimates say nearly 20,000 people could be displaced through evictions, leaving them with nowhere to live but on the street. In places where squatters have set up functional communities, including paying for heat, electricity and water in abandoned buildings, the law could hit especially hard.

Police have so far refused to say whether they will be conducting raids to remove squatters from their sites. They have, however, posted notices at popular squatter camps notifying them of the changes.

Groups supporting the squatters say this is the wrong time to start discriminating against homeless people and criminalizing their condition, citing statistics that say 40 percent of the homeless have squatted at one time or another. In addition, while some squatters simply do not have the money to own a home, many have full-time paying jobs and are squatting to escape less-than-ideal domestic situations such as abuse.

One such service is the Advisory Service for Squatters, a group that has existed in London since the 1970s. It is run entirely by volunteers who aim to provide advice and legal guidance for squatters while defending their rights.

Among the services the group provides is the Squatter’s Handbook, a publication now in its thirteenth edition, that provides guidelines on where to find property to squat in, what to do in confrontations with police, and how to maintain property and set up temporary sanitation. According to the group’s website the handbook is in particularly high demand right now due to a rising number of squatters in the face of the global economic recession.

Despite these facts polls show that nearly 52 percent of the public in the UK feel that squatting should still be criminalized. It remains to be seen what the true results of the government’s new policy will be.

For more information on the ASS, call 02032160099 or visit www.squatter.org.uk.

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