Squatting: What Are The Options?

hero image squatting

Ailsa talk to 1625ip about homelessness, squatting and Bristol’s housing crisis.

The large number of homeless people, combined with many visibly empty buildings means the frustration of Bristol residents is understandable. It also makes squatting seem like an obvious choice for many.

Bristol has a rich culture of squatting, both past and present. We have visible and well known squatting communities around Stokes Croft and other areas, as well as a local squatter making the papers  this year when he protested his eviction from the Printer’s Devil. However, despite its strong links with political protesting, squatting can also be something that people turn to when they find themselves homeless.

Out and about in Bristol, it’s easy to find people with stories about rising rent, exploitative letting agencies and negligent landlords. It is well accepted around Bristol now that we have a housing crisis on our hands. With our mayor, Marvin Rees, getting elected on a campaign based around tackling homelessness, the issue is beginning to get the attention it deserves. However, change is slow coming and in the meantime many people are left without a fixed abode, often in dangerous situations.

The large number of homeless people, combined with many visibly empty buildings means the frustration of Bristol residents is understandable. It also makes squatting seem like an obvious choice for many.

Squatting is when a person or group enters a property and lives in or intends to live in it. In 2012 the law was changed to make squatting in residential properties (such as houses or flats) illegal. However, it is still legal to squat in non-residential properties, so long as no damage is done to the property. Though the law was introduced with an aim to reduce squatting in England, when I talked with Hana Cogings, a housing advice worker at 1625 Independent People (1625ip), she said, ‘I guess the squatting ban was to try and discourage people from squatting but what it’s meant is that more vulnerable people are not squatting in houses that are built for occupation but instead in buildings that aren’t even supposed to be lived in.

One of the major problems with squatting non residential/commercial buildings is that they’re not actually set up for living in. So they won’t have bathrooms or running water or other facilities; they can get quite dirty and badly used really quickly. That leaves a person open to a whole loads of health risks. And then they are generally a lot harder to secure because they don’t just have one front door: they’ll have side doors, fire doors and big windows. And they’re not kept to a high living standard like houses usually are so there are health and safety risks there too.’

1625ip is a Bristol based charity that offers advice and support to 16 to 25 year olds

1625ip is a Bristol based charity that offers advice and support to 16 to 25 year olds who are either homeless or in a difficult position with housing. They not only provide direct support related to housing, but also help with surrounding issues, which can often lead to a young person being displaced, with services addressing conflict resolution, the transition from custody or care, training young people in life skills, confidence building, support with mental health and money management.

Having been homeless herself in the past, and now having worked in homelessness services for 8 years, Hana has noticed a worrying trend: ‘It used to be that people left home and then were spending a little time sofa surfing before they found a room in a shared house. But now what we’re seeing is more people presenting with more complex problems, exacerbated by cuts in supported housing and related services such as mental health support. So rather than just having one problem –that they’re homeless– they’ll be homeless and they’ll have mental health issues and they’ll be in a zero hours contract and so struggling to save any money and struggling to get themselves up again and get themselves out of that problem. Or sometimes there’ll be bigger problems in the home. It won’t just be that they had an argument: those arguments might have escalated and combined with more things that have gone wrong. People aren’t getting the support that they need at the moment’.

I asked her about squatting and whether 1625ip are seeing more young people turning to the charity as both the population and rent in Bristol rise further.

‘I know that we see about 600 young people every year through our drop in housing advice service who are homeless and of them, I’d say, about 10-15% are looking at the idea of squatting. And a lot of the time those young people don’t really see it as squatting. They won’t come in and say ‘I want to live in a squat’. It’s more likely that they’ll come in saying ‘There’s this empty property…’ or ‘if I stay in my tenancy a bit longer is anyone going to have a problem with that?’

‘I know that we see about 600 young people every year through our drop in housing advice service who are homeless…’

I think part of the problem as well is that a lot of the young people we see are quite vulnerable and don’t really have good social connections. Often they are on their own, rather than part of a collective that are looking out for each other and this leaves them vulnerable to attack, theft and exploitation. Squatting is a very insecure form of accommodation: the building is only occupied if someone is physically present so if they go out without someone else being there they could potentially return to find themselves shut out of the building.

Unfortunately you get people using empty buildings for drugs or vandalising them and if you’re the only person staying there this can be very risky, with the potential for threats or violence. And also because it’s now illegal to squat residential properties, if you’re in one you can be arrested or evicted without any notice; if you have to go through that process on your own with police that can be a really scary experience. Especially if you were only doing it because you wanted some shelter and hadn’t slept or eaten properly in a little while. All in all, squatting is an inherently insecure form of accommodation but even more so if you’re a young person on your own’

She went on to point out that Bristol has a lot of collectives of squatters, many of whom are quite good at looking after each other. Hana says that their success is based on having a good group of people with good organisation, who are confident talking to landlords and getting extensions on places. In these cases, 1625ip mainly see them if they get evicted on the spot, causing them to need to access emergency accommodation. These collectives can be quite self sufficient: a quality that often attracts people to squatting. Hana went on to point out that ‘when you’re homeless and vulnerable, you end up spending a lot of your time asking for help. You’ll be asking services to take you seriously, GPs to look at your health needs… you’re constantly asking other people to take action. And one of the things that appeals to people about squatting is that it’s a way for people to take action themselves rather than asking for a hand up or for others to pay attention. It’s about empowerment and taking control.’

Most people who squat are in housing need…

Though squatting can be hugely empowering when it goes well, Hana advises people to consider carefully whether it’s safe and if they have good people around them. Most people who squat are in housing need and 1625ip are happy to have a chat with any young person in this position, offer them advice and help them to access safe housing options. They can and do work with young people to get a stable place to live which Hana says is ‘far better than living in a squat because you can stay there as long as you need to’. Anyone aged 16-25 who is homeless or at risk of homelessness in the local area can access the drop in advice service by calling 0117 317 8800 or dropping in to the charity’s head office on Old Market Street.

As 1625ip help young people in housing need, ACORN  (the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now) is doing a lot of important work  on improving relationships between tenants and landlords, tackling unhealthy housing and gathering momentum and support for the Ethical Lettings Charter. The ELC ‘is a statement of intent, a declaration of decency; to help create a fair, professional and ethical private rental sector.’ and many are hopeful that it will improve housing conditions and reduce exploitation of vulnerable tenants by landlords and letting agencies. Whilst 1625ip, ACORN, Sisters Uncut Bristol and other organisations along with local politicians such as Marvin Rees and Thangam Debbonaire organising and enacting change, there is a huge amount still to be improved upon. Whilst squatting can and is a solution for some, availability of affordable, good quality, stable housing is preferable. Here’s to working towards a future where we can all have a place to call home.

What are your experiences and opinions on squatting and Bristol’s housing issues? Let us know on facebook and twitter

In housing need? As well as 1625ip you can check out Bristol Night Stop  and The Julian Trust.