Last week, the London squatting crew ANAL (Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians) made headlines as they began occupation of a Russian Oligarch’s £15m mansion in one of the world’s most wealthiest districts – Belgravia.
The move gained widespread attention from the national media due to the significance of the building. 102 Eaton Square is owned by Andrey Goncharenko, a Russian billionaire who in recent years has been snapping up properties in London including the country’s most expensive property – Hanover Lodge, which he bought for £120m. 102 Eaton Square has remained disused since the Oligarch purchased it in 2014. ANAL moved into the building to highlight the huge amount of wasted space in the city during a time when homelessness is at an all time high in the UK.
According to the most recent reports, taken in August 201 6 by Crisis, there are around 4,134 people sleeping rough on any one night in the UK. This is over double the results found in 2010. This figure is only taken from one night, and is reportedly significantly lower than what local agencies report over the course of a year on average.
Between 2015 and 2016, Crisis reports there were 8,096 people sleeping rough just in London alone.
It is hard to accurately keep track of how many people are homeless. Many people choose to hide themselves away due to the dangers of sleeping out on the street. The ‘hidden homeless’ make up a large proportion of missing statistics.The only help they offered me was a bus fare home.
Although there are homeless shelters and charities in the UK, they are often overwhelmed with applications and getting help can often be very difficult or non existent.
Squatting is one solution that people can take to avoid sleeping on the streets. It is legal in the UK under the right circumstances and also acts as a means of protest against the lack of affordable housing in this country. It highlights the amount of wasted space in our cities. Up until September 2012 squatting was a civil matter, but since the changes set out in Section 144 of the ‘Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012’ (LASPO), squatting in a residential building can run you the the risk of a trip to court. However, the law leaves out non-residential buildings, where squatters can still enjoy the right to occupy. Legislation like Section 6 of the ‘Criminal Law Act 1977’ gives squatters legal protection by making it a criminal offence to enter a building using unauthorised violence when the occupier expresses opposition to the landlord’s entry. This legislation is one of the most significant in ensuring the squatting movement survives.
John Murphy, 51, has been staying in 102 Eaton Square since Wednesday, 25 January. Before that he had been on the streets of London since August 2016. John arrived from Northern Ireland, where he had fled to escape danger. He said the support for homeless, particularly for him as an outsider to the city, was basically non-existent. He applied to the homeless charity Passage. He was refused entry after being told he didn’t have enough connection to the area: “The only help they offered me was a bus fare home. Back to Northern Ireland, back to troubles which I came over here to get away from.”
John said living at 102 Eaton Square has helped him to learn the benefits that squatting can offer the homeless, who may otherwise be left out freezing on the street: “The community in here is educated in how we can go about things. There’s so many empty buildings. I’ve been educated by them and I’m not going to be on the streets whenever the eviction order comes.”“It’s like a decompression zone when you just get out of the system a bit and can just think about your life.”
As well as providing shelter, 102 Eaton Square has been able to feed all it’s residents. As we walked around the mansion we found a huge surplus of food donated by the public and fellow activists. There was a room dedicated to arts and craft where banners and signs were made. There was even a projection room set up where people could come to watch informative films such as ‘I, Daniel Blake’ which highlights the failures of our so called ‘welfare state’. All residents in the building were welcoming and friendly, even to us as complete strangers. In the few short days since the squat has been established, a real sense of community has emerged.
Daniel is part of the ANAL crew that initially squatted 102 Eaton Square. He told me ANAL were making a resurgence after having been laying low for a while: “I think our crew has started coming back from the dead. The ANAL crew came back from the dead.” In fact, one of the members, Tom Palmer did die, in what was described as mysterious circumstances. Palmer was greatly loved and well known in the activism scene. The ANAL crew held a funeral for their dear friend on Monday the 30th at the Belgrave squat. “He was a legend, he was a really funny, crazy, revolutionary spirit” Reminisced Dan.
I asked why the crew chose to squat big buildings like this one. Dan responded “It’s a very simple statement usually. That these mansions are standing empty and they’re ridiculously expensive.” Dan talked about the corporate gentrification that is taking over the city: “This is the proper gentrification, turning everything into a Starbucks, a McDonalds or an Apple store.” Belgrave is predominantly the diplomatic region of the city, with most countries embassies being within close proximity of the squat. For this reason corporate gentrification is less likely to be felt in the immediate area, however Dan fears nearby districts such as Chelsea is soon to suffer a similar fate: “Then we will have to go there and help them at some point, to resist.”
Dan explained that before he began squatting, he had to work day and night just to afford the place he was renting. During the winter he couldn’t afford heating or electricity. After deciding that this was no way to live his life, he started squatting and realised the benefits of escaping the system: “It’s like a decompression zone when you just get out of the system a bit and can just, think about your life.”
Nico Suavé, who identifies as a ‘Greek-descended anarchist cripple,’ has been squatting in the UK for roughly seven years since self-exiling himself from the United States. He speaks with passion about his life and his values. A spoken word poet, Nico has been involved with poetry workshops in the squat. Nico’s roots in squatting evolved from association with the Occupy movement that took place in London and across the world in 2014. He has been involved with other squatting crews, such as The Love Activists who in 2014, opened up an abandoned RBS office into a squat which served Christmas dinner for the homeless.
I asked him what he wanted to see come out of this squat: “The crew that are here take it very seriously and we would like to see this be transformed into an embassy for the outliers of society.”
He said he wanted a space that wouldn’t turn people away. “They would be welcomed and we would be able to keep them warm, feed them, feed ourselves and get support from the community.”“We would like to see this be transformed into an embassy for the outliers of society.”
Nico spoke about how important squats like these are for networking and maintaining a sense of community. Moving between buildings in a group of friends is much easier and safer to do. Squats can serve as a hotspot for building networks, sharing values and exchanging ideas.
On Tuesday 31 January I received a text from Nico informing me that their court trial had been over in a matter of minutes. Unsurprisingly, the court found in favour of Mr. Goncharenko. Bailiffs are due to the property immediately. (01/02/17)
Whilst this building looks to be lost, the squatting community in the UK is strong. More buildings, not just in London, but throughout the country, have already been earmarked. As long as the housing system remains broken, squatting will continue to be not only a product of, but a response to, the society we live in.
For more information on squatting