Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Simon Hooper: British ban squatting to tackle ‘anarchists’ -- Squatting in empty properties is now a criminal offence, but homeless people say they are being unfairly criminalised

British ban squatting to tackle ‘anarchists’: Squatting in empty properties is now a criminal offence, but homeless people say they are being unfairly criminalised.
by Simon Hooper
Al Jazeera

London, UK - "Todd" was 18 when he came to the United Kingdom from Lithuania in 2005 in search of a better life. But things didn't work out. By 2009, with the British economy ravaged by recession, he had lost his job and had nowhere to live.

"I had really bad depression so I couldn't hold a job. I ended up sleeping rough on the streets. My mental health was deteriorating... I had suicidal thoughts," he recalls.

Todd - an adopted Anglicisation of his Lithuanian name - ended up in Brighton, a town on England's south coast with a reputation for tolerance, a vibrant arts scene and a homelessness problem. It was there that he began to rebuild his life, finding a vital support network among those squatting in the town's ample stock of empty and neglected buildings and sometimes opening them up as impromptu galleries and cultural spaces.

British squatters face eviction after law change

"I call myself houseless, not homeless. We are a community and we help each other out," he explains. "There is a lot of support and there is always somebody to talk to. Living like this, you're always in control of your own life. You don't have the money to support yourself food-wise, maybe, but you can go and get it from skips. It's still the same food."

But tens of thousands like Todd who seek shelter in unoccupied properties now risk arrest and imprisonment under a government-backed campaign to outlaw squatting.

Under a law in place since the beginning of September, squatting in empty residential properties in England and Wales is already a criminal offence, with those convicted facing months in prison and steep fines. The ministry of justice estimates that up to 2,000 people could be prosecuted each year.

Supporters of the law, including David Cameron, the British prime minister, argue that banning squatting is necessary to protect homeowners and landlords, to prevent associated anti-social and criminal behaviour, and to give the police and courts greater powers to evict, arrest and prosecute those engaged in it.

'Targets the vulnerable'

Recently, Mike Weatherley, the main architect of that legislation, met Chris Grayling, the justice minister, to discuss its extension to commercial properties as well.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Weatherley, whose Hove constituency is adjacent to Brighton, said that the law needed to be tougher because squatters were taking advantage of a "loophole" allowing the occupation of properties that were part-commercial and part-residential, such as pubs.

"The police like it, the public like it, it's a good law, and those who says it's not are just anarchists," said Weatherley. "These properties belong to somebody and the law for too long has been ineffectual."

But opponents say that the ban targets the vulnerable at a time when cuts to public services and benefits, high unemployment and a shortage of social housing mean that, for some, sleeping in a squat may be the last option before sleeping on the streets.

Squatting campaigners say there are also hundreds of thousands of properties being left empty and falling into dereliction even as rising rents and high property prices have left growing numbers struggling to find affordable accommodation.

"All it's doing is criminalising homeless people in the middle of a housing crisis," said Joseph Blake of the Squatters' Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) pressure group. He cited the case of a 21-year-old man, Alex Haigh, who in September became the first person to be jailed under the new law.

"The people who are being affected are those using squatting as the final means to get a roof over their head. Alex Haigh has gone to prison for sheltering in a building that had been empty for a year-and-a-half. We think squatting needs to be there as a last resort, especially in tough times."

Homelessness in many areas of the UK has risen sharply in recent years, with the latest government figures showing more than 50,000 families and individuals in need of emergency accommodation in 2012, a 25 percent rise since 2009.

Charities and campaigners argue that the actual number of "hidden homeless", including rough sleepers and those sleeping on sofas, is much higher. Up to 50,000 people are estimated to be living in squats, including about half now illegally in residential properties, and research by the charity Crisis showed that almost 40 percent of homeless people have resorted to squatting at some point, often in bleak and squalid conditions.

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