“Um… excuse me, but do you know you’ve got quite a lot of rats nesting in your mattress?” It turns out the squatter dozing on said mattress is Lithuanian and, as neither of us speak the other’s language, there;s no point continuing the conversation. But I think he knows, anyway. It’s that kind of squat.
Squatters. They’re the freeloading scumbags who slip into your lovely home when you’ve popped out for a pint of milk, or taken the kids to Disneyland for the weekend. You get back to find your front-door key won’t fit in the lock. That’s because it’s been changed, along with all the others. There’s a rainbow-coloured old Transit van parked in your drive and a heap of black binliners bursting with rubbish on the front lawn.
You peer at a photocopied legal notice nailed to the front door. It explains that your house is now the legal dwelling of those inside and no one can enter without their permission. Especially you. It will take weeks, maybe months, to get them legally evicted. Meanwhile, where are you going to sleep tonight?
In fact, this little scenario is close to being an urban legend, about as likely as the Essex lion. All the die-hard squatters I met recently regard such behaviour as tantamount to burglary and would have no truck with it.
In any case, the scenario is defunct. In September a simple, robust law was passed that outlaws squatting in a domestic property. To squat in someone’s house is a criminal offence and the police have full powers to go in mobhanded and winkle out the miscreants. Fines and jail time may follow, for added emphasis.
But most of the squats I’ve been inside for my ITV documentary this week are derelict commercial properties. The new law won’t affect them.
If a community is lucky, squatters will smarten up a local eyesore, maybe plant a vegetable patch where trashed cars used to be, even start up community projects.
If they’re unlucky, they’ll experience the nightmare endured by neighbours of a burnt-out pub in Walthamstow, north-east London. For the past five years it’s been home to anything up to a dozen itinerant Lithuanian labourers. Conditions inside are indescribable.
Most of the men who live there are hard drinkers. Because there are absolutely no facilities – no running water, no toilet – they stagger outside at night to defecate on the pavement or urinate up the walls of neighbouring businesses, whose owners’ first job of the day is to power-hose the pavement clean of human excrement.
Were they “typical” squatters? No. Were any of the many squatters I got to know this summer “typical”? No. I discovered the world of squatting is a hugely varied and surprising place, nothing like I was expecting.
Since the new law criminalising squatting in domestic properties came into effect, the number of squats in commercial premises is reported to have rocketed. No surprise there. You can’t make homeless people disappear with a wave of the statute book.
I have some sympathy for squatters who move into empty office blocks, derelict pubs, abandoned factories. Sometimes the owners have no immediate plans for the sites. And often they are barely aware they own them – they’re just entries on a balance sheet lodged in a commercial bank in, say, Dubai.
But squatters are a mixed tribe. Some, proud anarchists and anti-capitalists; others, lost souls drifting through broken lives; alcoholics; druggies; eco-warriors. But all seek a kind of personal freedom and independence.
And you know what? I thought there was something quintessentially British about that.