BY MANISHA GANGULY
Number 36 doesn’t look like a squat. In a too-neat neighbourhood with Victorian houses and white picket fences, it’s the junk furniture left out on the yard and plastic over the windows that lets me know I’m at the right house. I’m here to speak to Piotr (30), who along with his flat-mates, is facing eviction after five years of living here.
There is silence when I ring the doorbell, and after a few minutes of waiting, the sound of shuffling footsteps followed by, “Who’s there?” The relief in his voice is palpable as he cracks open the door to let me in.
“Sorry this place is a bit of a mess. We are still moving our stuff and don’t know where to put them”, he says, leading me down the narrow corridor into the main den.
The living room: “No GMO” stickers adorn the fridge
Piotr settles into the couch, and tells me straight away that he wants no photos taken of his face. He looks exhausted: he’s been packing and moving furniture all day, preparing for the eviction. “We have to put all our stuff in storage but we’re leaving so much behind.”
A map of London with a ferry drawn over the River Thames.
The house, I’m told, belonged to an old couple, who had died. Estranged from their children who were in Poland and other parts of England, it had lain empty for a few months, before they had moved in. How do you know if a house empty and can be squatted in? He laughs, “Newspapers. They pile up for months and nobody removes them.”
There has been a significant rise in squatting in London with the post-austerity housing crisis. Property agent Savills reports an expected 19% hike in UK by 2021 due to ‘post-referendum economic uncertainty’. Due to unaffordable housing, rising rent, and lack of social housing, migrant workers like Piotr are left with little option except to squat.
A series of children’s postcards on the stairwell
The house is shared by Karol, who is Polish, and two other Bulgarians who were out putting some of their belongings in storage in preparation for the eviction. Karol tells me when they’d arrived at the place, the ceiling had completely caved in after having lain empty and unmaintained for so many months. “We had to fix it ourselves, put the beam up, paint it. And now we have to leave. These people didn’t even care about the house and what happened to it till they found out we were here.”
Till 2014, squatting was regarded in court as a civil offence, but after September 2012 amendment in section 144 of the LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act), squatting in residential properties is a criminal offence. Which essentially means, that while 498 of people in UK sleep rough each night (of which 248 are in London) residential properties lie vacant due to the new ruling that seeks to safeguard private property of the privileged.
The ship adorns pride of place on the rack in Piotr’s room
The room with its jumble of objects
Piotr is Polish too, and has been squatting for fourteen years. “I like squatting. I left Poland when the communists fell, went to Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague. In London, I was squatting at the Hackney Hospital which had been empty for fourteen years.” The letter of notice had only arrived yesterday, and after five years, he would be homeless again.
I am offered a tour of Piotr’s room, which is a jumble of everything from half-finished canvases, bottles of ketchup, a model of a ship to wires, guitars, laptop batteries, heaps of clothes and boxes of half-finished pizza. He has painted the walls with rainbow splatters, and says he likes picking canvases and paintings off the streets.
As he gets me a cup of tea, I ask him how he sustains his lifestyle. He points to the stack of bicycles in the hallway: Karol and he work as medical couriers, driving samples to labs from hospitals. On an average day, their earnings total a 100 pounds.
This painting of the Buddha (pictured above) was found on a pavement by Karol. Piotr tells me that the back of the Buddha facing us is believed to be a symbol of bad luck, which is possibly why it was discarded. I ask him if he’s taking it with them when he leaves and he says he’d rather leave it behind.
The pillar in the den is stamped with an array of stickers from music festivals all over Europe. “I’m a musician- I love making music, going to gigs, festivals”. I’d met him at a gig, so I’m not surprised by his announcement.
The kitchen has a stack of books in the corner
Fries, tea and cigarettes for dinner
Piotr and the door to his room which he painted
As I head to the door, I ask Piotr where the group plans to head to next. He shakes his head and laughs uncertainly. “I have no plans. Some of us are going to Hackney. We don’t know yet.”
For more information on squatter’s rights, click here.