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Big Apple’s squatters’ solution?

June 15 2012


March’s change to the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill means that it will be a matter of months before squatting in residential properties becomes a crime in the UK.

This will be punishable by imprisonment and fines of up to £5,000 if squatters have moved into a residential property. While squatting in non-residential properties is still illegal, it will not have the same levels of punishment.

Activists in New York, where there are more vacant buildings than homeless people, are working to change warehouses into homes for the homeless.

The group, called Picture the Homeless, is tackling homelessness from a different angle. Instead of giving the usual figures of how many homeless people there are in the area, they are calculating how many homeless people could be housed in the empty lots in Gotham. This comes to 200,000.

“This is more about changing the conversation.” Sam Miller of Picture the Homeless states. “We’ve known for a while how many people without homes there are. Now we know how many homes without people there are too.”

The activists have also been giving lessons on how to gain access and control of the buildings, so that it becomes not about squatting, but about homesteading; permanently occupying a property. Their practices, and funding, have been called into question, however, and there are concerns that the group is encouraging people to break the law, and risk their safety, in buildings that may have been empty for years.

The change in the law here may see the squatting population, of which there are estimated to be 20,000-30,000, attempting to move on to non-residential property, but as the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) states, this will not always be easy or appropriate.

In a recent statement, the service called for people to be more organised, linked up, resistant to evictions, attacking housing rights, and looking after each other better. When asked about Picture the Homeless, a spokesperson from the service said: “There aren’t really such projects in England because many homeless people do squat for themselves without needing to be particularly organised. This will probably be changing with the introduction of the new laws on squatting. ASS welcomes anybody helping homeless people occupy and make use of empty properties.”