Criminalising squatting will hit homeless, charities warn

Cameron legal crackdown ‘not protecting families’ says Crisis as charities challenge image that squatting is a lifestyle choice

Squatting in derelict houses (such as the one pictured) is not a lifestyle choice, say homeless charities. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Leading charities are warning that proposals to make squatting a criminal offence risk dragging some of the country’s most vulnerable people through the justice system.

A letter from the charity Crisis and endorsed by the Big Issue Foundationchallenges the media image that squatting is largely a lifestyle choice popular with middle class dropouts.

It points out that almost 40% of homeless people resort to squatting at some point, and that of these more than half have been to prison, 20% are alcohol-dependent and more than a third have mental health problems. The letter, which is backed by other organisations working with homeless people and ex-offenders, will be sent to the government next week.

The proposal to criminalise squatting in England and Wales – as is already the case in Scotland – was announced by David Cameron on Tuesday as part of his wider toughening of criminal justice measures.

“A lot of the debate is coloured by media headlines about people squatting from a lifestyle choice in these large mansions,” said Katharine Sacks-Jones, head of policy at Crisis. “What we really want to make sure ministers are aware of is that there’s a large proportion of squatters who are very vulnerable people who are squatting because they simply don’t have another choice. This law would be criminalising very, very vulnerable people, and I don’t think anyone wants to see that. It’s counter-productive. It’s not going to address the underlying problems that these people face: that there’s a lack of housing.”

Groups representing squatters say that while precise numbers are hard to establish, the government’s estimate of 20,000 squatters throughout the UK is likely to be a significant underestimate.

The recession means squatters now include families who cannot meet mortgage payments, they say.

“This is essentially criminalising homelessness in the middle of a housing crisis, which is completely crazy,” said Paul Reynolds, from Squatters Action for Secure Homes. “People who are at the raw end of a lot of other social policy end up squatting as it’s the one form of self help open to them. They can make use of an unused resource – an empty building which they look after. When the owner wants to get rid of them it’s a very cheap and simple procedure.”

The notion that a law change is needed to protect families from having their homes taken over, for example when they are on holiday, is nonsense, he said. Such actions are already crimes under a 1977 lawprotecting “displaced residential occupiers” or intended occupiers.

“If someone squats your home, you’re legally entitled to break back in and remove them using reasonable force,” he said. “This new law is designed, as far as we can tell, to protect property speculators, people who own long-term empty commercial properties which they’re often quite happy to let fall into disrepair.”

Squatters invariably improve the properties in which they live, he added: “Pretty much every squat I’ve been to has had lots of work done. If someone’s living there they make it a home. A lot of landlords realise this and they don’t mind.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We are determined that those who enter and occupy people’s property should be punished, which is why we will shortly be consulting on criminalising squatting. Our housing strategy, which will be published later this year, will tackle the issue of persistent homelessness by setting out our approach to creating more affordable housing, while reducing the numbers of vacant properties.”

From derelict house to valued home

Anna Odrich began squatting in a square of derelict, condemned houses in Vauxhall, south London, in 1982. She later bought the house.

“Mine was the last house occupied on Bonnington Square so it was in the worst condition. It had huge holes in the roof, hardly a floorboard left – everybody else had used them to make fires or bookshelves – no gas, no electricity, no water.

“I started work. I would find things in skips: doors, floorboards, window frames, a bath. It took years to have amenities you could regard as functional. My first water was a garden hose from the ground floor. I learned a lot. When you’re not a professional things don’t always work out. I built about seven kitchens – they got better all the time and moved around the house.

“It makes me very annoyed when people say squatters have it easy. When we bought the house five years later the owners, the Inner London Education Authority, got a lot more money as all our work had made it more valuable.

“It’s very dangerous just to point fingers. There’s all kinds of squatters. There are freeloaders – I know all about this; at one point I had someone living on my bathroom floor for two months – but there’s freeloaders everywhere. There’s no reason to destroy it all for the sake of a few people.”


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