‘Welcome to the underworld’ said the policemen as he shut the gate to the squat. I had asked to visit one of the derelict buildings which Thames Reach’s outreach teams regularly enter to meet and assist the people hidden away in its dark recesses. A few weeks earlier in a conversation with outreach colleagues I was shocked to hear that they considered the conditions endured by people living in derelict buildings to be more appalling than those facing rough sleepers on the street. They reminded me that we knew of six people who had died in ‘squats’ from different causes including an accident (falling down broken stairs),overdoses and a murder.
This particular squat is vast. The entrance courtyard, blackened by fire and roofless, has strewn around it paraphernalia that presents a squalid pastiche of deprivation in 21st century Britain. There is a scattering of syringes, small blackened bottles requisitioned for the smoking of crack, the desiccated body of a rat, numerous television sets (the innards of a set can be sold as scrap metal for around £10) and literally hundreds of empty super-strength cider and lager cans.
In the shadows at the back of the building there are three men in the main living area which contains a table and some battered chairs. They are wary but friendly. They know us and the police and are eager to get back to their work; the bundling up of metal to be transported in a supermarket trolley to a local scrap metal dealer.
It’s early evening and dusk is upon us as we climb a rickety staircase to the next level of the squat. Here the level of detritus reaches wading levels, washing around our ankles. A rich, sickly aroma emanates from the trash as it is disturbed. My stomach heaves and, with relief, I feel it settle. It would have been embarrassing to have added to the mess.
At the top of the stairs there is a small room and in the half-light it appears that there are three empty beds, but then a figure stirs in one of the beds and sits up. The man seems genuinely pleased to see us. His name is Hanif, a Palestinian who has lived in England for 11 years. Hanif is finding living in the squat intolerable. He explains that he is an asylum-seeker and his immigration status is being investigated. Every month he reports, as required, to the immigration authorities in central London. It seems he has been waiting years for his application to be resolved. My colleague Sarah takes some details so she can follow up with the immigration authorities to find out why his case is taking so long to reach resolution. She asks him if he is working and Hanif wrings his hands with remorse because, indeed, he has been working occasionally which his status as an asylum-seeker does not entitled him to do. I speculate mordantly that here in the surreal unreality of the underworld it is perversely logical that undertaking paid work in order to avoid utter destitution should be a shameful thing to do.
We have spent an hour in the squat and all of us are eager to return to the other world. A couple of large rats have been seen snuffling their way through the piles of rubbish and the stench of the garbage feels as if it has seeped into our clothes. We return with relief to the streets, thronged with people making their way home from work.
Last week we submitted our response to the government’s consultation on squats. We do not support the option of criminalising squatting. The squatting debate has polarised around stereotypes. There are the squatters as aggressively interlopers who invade your home and change the locks when you are on holiday. Or there is the squat as the communal nirvana full of caring, sharing individuals who, without the option to squat, would be on the street.
Our reality is that many squatted buildings are death-traps and we routinely witness living conditions that go beyond wretched. Little wonder that one of the closest working relationships that the outreach teams have is with the London Fire Brigade, called with frightening regularity to tackle fires within derelict buildings inhabited by people at risk because they are under the influence of drink and drugs. The focus must be on enforcing effective and humane squat closures involving outreach teams, environmental health and the police. There are excellent examples of such closures taking place leading to the inhabitants being given help with substance misuse problems, support to return home and assistance to find more settled accommodation. Derelict buildings must be properly sealed up and protected to prevent them becoming re-squatted and brought rapidly back into use through a mix of threat, including the enactment of Compulsory Purchase Orders, and incentives such as interest free loans.
Later that evening, I am at the bathroom sink, trying to remove an invisible, but pungent substance from my forearm, an unwelcome present from our visit. My head is full of images from the squat but there is one in particular that feels burned into my memory. As we spoke to Hanif with night falling, the profile of his face moved from shadow into the light and I saw that his cheeks were glistening with tears. And I became aware that whilst he had been telling us his tale, this desperate man had been silently weeping.
[This piece was published in Inside Housing magazine on October 21st 2011]