Bristol squatters about to become criminalised
SQUATTING is to become illegal after a ban was rubber stamped.
New legislation received royal assent that will make it a crime to occupy people’s homes.
The measures will be implemented in stages over the next year.
Ministers are understood to want to bring in the squatting ban within two months.
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The law change means squatters in residential buildings can be criminalised, fined and even sent to prison.
Currently squatting is a civil offence, and homeowners often face lengthy legal battles to evict people.
As the bill to criminalise squatting receives royal assent, David Clensy meets some of the people living in Bristol’s empty properties:
FROM outside, the squat looks every bit as imposing and sinister as you might expect – with frowning makeshift metal shutters, and a graffiti-covered front door.
But from the moment I step inside the building – a former warehouse in Stokes Croft – it becomes clear that the inhabitants are friendly enough.
One young woman even tells me her name is Peace. “No,” she insists when I smile. “My name really is Peace.”
Inside the squat, known affectionately as “The Emporium” an old Persian rug attempts to hide the harsh cold concrete floor. There is a sofa against one wall, and a chintzy lamp adds a touch of fragile homeliness to a corner.
Roger Cole, 54, has been squatting since he was 19 “on and off” – he now “runs” the Emporium squat as well as helping in the so-called “Free Shop” – the squat next door that’s run by the bohemian group as a secondhand shop where no money changes hands.
Roger sits on a stool beside the door, carefully smoking a stub-end cigarette – more of a world-weary sage than a bouncer.
As the oldest member of this ad-hoc community, existing on the very fringes of society, he sees himself as a protector – a fatherly figure.
“Most of the squatters are very young,” he tells me, concern knotting his brow. “They need someone watching over them.”
It’s a concern that is not felt by the majority of Bristolians. Squatters have long been seen as the ultimate free-loaders – ne’er-do-wells using a loophole in the law to torment the unfortunate property owners whose buildings they occupy indefinitely under the wearily defiant mantra of “squatters’ rights”.
But a change in the law – which many would say was long overdue – is about to shift the emphasis away from the rights of the squatters back towards the rights of the property owners.
This week the new legislation, contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, received royal assent.
Ministers are keen to bring the squatting ban into force within just two months, meaning squatters could soon face fines of up to £5,000 and in extreme cases could be jailed for up to six months.
Roger, the sensitive paternal squatter of Stokes Croft, is feeling bitter about the introduction of the new law.
“All it’s going to do is to make criminals out of people that are just needy,” he says. “What kind of a civilisation is that? What kind of a country are we living in?
“Essentially, you’re criminalising homelessness. You’re criminalising poverty. Let me tell you, the majority of these people don’t live in these conditions out of choice. They squat because otherwise they would be sleeping out on the streets, while they’re surrounded by empty buildings.
“This place, for example, has been empty for the best part of 30 years. Before we started squatting here a couple of years ago, it was just an empty space – a void in the street, abandoned by the property’s owners who couldn’t care less about leaving big blank holes in the middle of communities.
“Why shouldn’t we be able to make use of these buildings? We’ve got half-a-dozen people living here in a building with no running water, no toilet, no heating. It’s hardly comfortable. They’re just sheltering from the elements.”
It’s not always so basic. Earlier this year, in a high profile case, a gang of squatters were evicted from the Grade Two-listed Clifton Wood House, once Bristol’s most expensive property.
They had trashed the place.
The occupiers have now dispersed to less luxurious squats across the city. But the days “in the mansion” are remembered fondly among the itinerants.
Irina – a 26-year-old Lithuanian who arrived in the country in January moved straight into the £4 million property, complete with swimming pool and wine cellar.
Today she is sleeping at the King’s Arms – a former pub in Kingsdown, taken over by squatters before developers were able to convert the building into student flats.
“I’m living in this place with its leaking roof, among all the mould and the mice,” she tells me gloomily.
“It’s not like being in the mansion. It was good being in the mansion.”
Like all the squatters I meet in the city, Irina clearly believes wholeheartedly in her moral justification for occupying other people’s properties.
Willowy and fragile, her nervous, wide brown eyes peer out of her sallow, malnourished face, as she wraps a charity blanket around her meagre frame. She hitch-hiked across Europe, intent on finding work in Britain – enchanted by childhood memories of a now distant holiday to Brighton in better times for her family. But since arriving in Bristol she says she has only found insecurity.
“I came here knowing I would need to squat while I was looking for work, because I literally have no money. Nothing at all,” she says.
“At first, when I was in the mansion, it seemed okay this way of life. But now, it is not okay. It is horrible, and I am frightened. A squat is not a secure place to live. You never know who will be in there with you. It’s hard to feel secure about the few items I do own. It’s difficult to feel secure about my own personal safety.
“But it beats sleeping rough on the streets. The first night after we were thrown out of the mansion, I spent the night sleeping in a park. I was cold and wet and terrified of what might happen to me.”
By day Irina works at the “Free Shop” – it’s an unpaid job of course, but it allows her to feel “useful” – it helps her to integrate into the community of squatters.
“My dream is to get a real job and to start building my life,” she says, before adding ominously, “I would do anything to earn some money. Anything at all.”
Most of the squatters in Bristol seem to be “travelling through” – or once were, but have somehow settled in the haphazard squatting community in the city. But not all of them have travelled as far as Irina.
Forty-year-old Peter Jones left his home in Cornwall, after his landlord ended the tenancy on his small flat, in order to convert it into a holiday-let apartment.
“I could have stayed down there,” he admits. “But there is very little work in Cornwall these days. If you’re not a holidaymaker, it can feel a bit like the Third World. What work there is tends to be seasonal – jobs connected with tourism or with agriculture. There’s no security in it.”
Peter decided to travel “up-country” in the hope of finding employment, but only got as far as Bristol. For the past two years he has been living in a squat in St Paul’s.
“I’ve never met anyone who squatted as a lifestyle choice,” he says. “It’s purely a necessity. We’re homeless people in a city that has fewer and fewer hostel spaces.
“We face a lot of criticism about squatting. But you have to ask yourself whether faced with the choice of sleeping rough on the streets, or entering a disused building to find shelter, which one you would choose.
“Squatters are despised by the property owners, of course, and we’re abused by the media and by politicians, but actually the normal man on the street tends to be either sympathetic or tends to completely ignore us.
“There have only been a few occasions when I’ve been attacked verbally in the street because I’m a squatter, and one or two times when I’ve been physically attacked – when property owners have tried to take the law into their own hands.”
Peter grins nervously – showing a missing tooth as he smiles.
“To be honest, I can sympathise with them getting angry. Of course they don’t want us occupying their property. But things aren’t always black and white. Sometimes you have to think in terms of the lesser of two evils.
“To criminalise squatting is going to infringe on our basic human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights does recognise a basic right to a place to live; a roof over your head.
“If you put us in prison, ironically enough, you’ll solve the problem – but you’ll have to pay a lot more for putting a roof over our heads and food on our plates.”