Homelessness, not squatting, is the real crime

As of last week, it is a criminal offence to squat in any residential property, including those that are empty or abandoned. Many of the headlines were almost euphoric in tone, lauding the end of ‘squatters’ rights’ and praising a victory for common sense. And who could disagree? For too long lazy, hippie, dropout, scrounging anarchists have been causing ‘untold misery’ by forcing thousands of really nice law-abiding people out of their homes.

Oh how the Daily Mail would love this to be true, except it isn’t, so they had to make it up.  I’m not denying it happens, nor that it’s upsetting (although I often wonder who is more upset, the displaced homeowner or hysterical commentators who fear it might happen to them), but it doesn’t represent most squatting.  And in any case, it was already illegal.

Perhaps David Cameron realised this mistake when he evicted Grant Shapps from his job as housing minister and made him Conservative Party chairman, where he won’t really have to deal with any facts?  Or perhaps not.  But Shapps did seem to have form when it came to making illegal things that were already illegal, as the excellent @nearlylegal pointed out when Shapps announced the government would support a private member’s bill to criminalise the sub-letting of social housing.

Does it matter if something is made illegal twice, even if it does make you look a bit stupid?  Well, yes, if it costs money you don’t have and unnecessarily criminalises thousands of people.  Still, if you follow some of the popular press and listen to what MPs and ministers have said about the issue, you could be forgiven for thinking that a new law was necessary.

‘Squatters’ rights’ are an urban myth on a par with the ‘compensation culture’.  Trespassing in someone’s home with the intention of living there was already a criminal offence, which the police said was ‘broadly in the right place’ for them to tackle the worst cases, such as people coing back from holiday to find dreadlocked, pot-smoking, crusties have camped out in their living room.

Misrepresenting the law does no-one any favours, certainly not the people who will feel the brunt of it.  Homeless charities fear thousands of people may be evicted from otherwise empty houses, and before you start crying out that these are not their homes and they have no right to them, perhaps you would like to find somewhere else for them to live?  Because if not, they are going to end up on the corner of your street.

With homelessness rising 14% last year it is hard to think of a better use for the 720,000 empty properties blighting neighbourhoods across England alone.  Instead, the new law will mean squatters living in otherwise unoccupied or abandoned buildings will face six months in prison and a £5,000 fine.

Possibly fair enough if you are of the nice-family-home-breaking-and-entering variety, but not at all fair if you are one of those squatting in a derelict, rat-infested building because you have no other choice except the street.  It might not fit the story the tabloids like to tell, but most squatters are not living it up at your expense.

The homeless charity, Crisis, says 40% of homeless people have squatted at some time, and that many of them will be vulnerable, with 37 per cent having mental health problems, 52 per cent having been in prison and 20 per cent being alcohol dependent.  Many have just  fallen on hard times and have no chance of affording the deposit for a mortgage or standard rents even if they have a job (a report by Shelter suggested you’d have to earn £3,500 a month to afford the standard rent in London).

In fact, squatters may actually save the government money, possibly up to £90m a year, because they can’t claim housing benefit.  Some even pay council tax and water rates.  On the other hand, enforcing the new law may cost an estimated £790 million in processing cases through the courts, police time and council resources to rehouse those who’ve been evicted.  This more than wipes out any savings the made under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which brings it into law.

The media would have us believe that every pleasant middle-class street has at least one property occupied by lawbreakers, but in fact, there were only 37 prosecutions for squatting between 2001 and 2010.  This could, of course, be for a number of reasons.  There may have only been 37 instances, the law could, as the government decided, have been inadequate or maybe the police just weren’t that bothered about enforcing the law.

Neither reason seems much of a justification for putting huge numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens on the wrong side of the law.  Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a layabout benefit-scrounger to squat.  It may only take a tiny quirk of fate to find yourself suddenly out of your home and on the streets.  Squatters can be teachers, shop workers, students, in fact anyone.

The hysteria surrounding the debate about squatting, or indeed any issue to do with protecting your property, cultivates a rational, if largely misplaced, fear that we are all at risk of losing our homes to violent invaders.  I’d be prepared to bet most people are at far greater risk of losing their home through repossession or redundancy than squatting.  But when has being rational ever come into it?

Homelessness, not squatting, should be the real enemy.  The crime the government should focus on is that thousands of people have no hope of getting a mortgage or making rental payments because the rates are absurdly high.  The scandal is that landlords are allowed to leave properties empty when we desperately need affordable housing.  And your fear should be not that squatters invade your home, but that you might end up as one of them.

If you've been affected by any of the issues I've discussed in this blog, I would reccomend referring to this webpage from Shelter, a charity dedicated to supporting people facing homelessness. Learn more here.


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