Saturday, 6 December 2008

(Down) Underground

As you may have read in the "By the way, it's legal" entry, squatting is not illegal in England. But how is squatting viewed in other parts of the world?

The following passage is taken from an article by Adam Ferguson entitled "Personal Property", that was published in Big Issue Australia in 2005 and offers the view of squatting from the Australian perspective :

"There are no exact statistics on squatting in Australia, and even vague estimates are rare. This lack of data is largely due to the "outsider status" of squatters, according to Dr Catherine Robinson, author of a 2003 report, Squatting: What's the Reality?. "You're talking about an invisible population," she says. "It's not a population that's going to attract a lot of research interest. These are people who simply don't want to be found."

Technically, squatting is illegal (although generally the only offence being committed is trespass, and this is rarely prosecuted). But some believe squatting is a right; a legitimate response to rising rents and a lack of cheap housing options. Organisations like the Sydney Housing Action Collective (SHAC) provide support, information and legal advice to squatters. Their online guide, Squatters' Handbook, provides advice on everything from finding a place to dealing with police, landlords and neighbours.

"The essential ethic is that it is a crime to have all these empty properties around Australia while there are people who are homeless, sleeping in doorways or in train stations," says Louise Boon-Kuo, a spokesperson for SHAC. She argues that with the abundance of "empties" in Australian cities, people shouldn't have to rely on the private rental market or the government to solve their housing needs.

With its shady legal status and seedy reputation, squatting can often spark conflict with the authorities, property owners and mainstream society. Perhaps the most publicised clash in Australia involved a cluster of council-owned buildings in Sydney, known as the Broadway Squats, which were blockaded by squatters with the help of sympathetic unionists when the council tried to evict them in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympic Games.

Of course, squatters who maintain and even improve their homes don't make for sensationalist news stories. Which is why the mainstream media focus instead on squats where drug use and property damages are.

One squatter Robinson contacted said, of her home :"My squat gives me a sense of place, of belonging and ownership. It is free of rules, free from compulsion to be involved in case management and self improvement."

As long as the concept of owning land exists, Wright-Howie notes, so too will squatters, "I don't think we necessarily want to condone it, but we want to understand why people are doing it, and we need to treat those people with dignity and respect."