Homeless in a city of empty properties

England
Cities
Housing
Society
Belgravia houses

While many London houses stand empty, homelessness is an ever-growing problem in the capital. Ewan Munro under a Creative Commons Licence

I have been besieged by a jumbled, confused trail of thoughts

Squatters in a Russian oligarch’s palatial Belgravia house? Sounds like the 1970s to me, and the long-dormant anarchist in me said ‘Hurrah!’.

Obviously I am decades older now, though, and I had to pause and ask myself: ‘Hang on. Isn’t that hypocritical?’ My husband recently inherited property – a shared inheritance with his siblings. But it is undoubtedly (ahem) capitalist-pig property all the same. Standing alongside the bourgeoisie, the Indian landed gentry. So who am I – a property owner – to honestly claim to side with the homeless? How can I rejoice at the news of this mother of all squats? Having any house at all, let alone a second home, was anathema to us 30 years ago. Having a second home was disgraceful, and a total sell-out, according to the comrades of our youth.

I’m genuinely confused and cannot unravel my reactions. So be warned, this is a bit of a ramble.

I was pretty horrified by some of the more venomous reader comments in both The Guardian and The Independent. Someone wrote something like ‘don’t call the NHS when the body parts are carried out in bags.’ I detected a note of glee. Hands rubbed in anticipation of the mafia teaching the yobs a lesson?

I don’t know much about real estate, or what drives it. But I’ve often heard angry, disgusted comments from British friends, and not just from those who favour squatting, about how valuable London properties lie empty, mere investments for foreign billionaires, while Londoners, especially the young, are driven out of the city by skyrocketing unaffordable rents. But it sounds like common sense. I’ve heard about an Arab owner near Hyde Park who, because he can’t get permission to pull down an old building, is using it as a junkyard, with no repairs done. Perhaps it will just collapse in such a neglected state. Apparently, while old buildings can’t be demolished, there’s no law to prevent them being left to rot and fall into ruin.

Back home, in Goa, there’s a Russian mafia controlling a long stretch of beach. Somehow, they apparently own a lot of the beach, though foreigners owning land in India is pretty difficult because of complicated land laws. They push drugs and traffic East European and Russian women. Police and politicians turn a blind eye; obviously a mafia can do anything it desires. Property in several Indian cities is totally controlled by a land mafia with the backing of corrupt politicians. There’s a feeling of helplessness everywhere.

The question is, when there’s a massive housing crisis, should we allow buildings to sit vacant, while increasing numbers of people sleep on the pavements? I read about spikes being installed in front of a fancy Manchester home and ordinary Mancunians angered by the mean-spiritedness, covering the spikes with cushions and pillows in protest.

The Guardian articles on the homeless in London brought a new perspective to me. We don’t really think very closely about ‘invisible’ people. And that’s what the homeless are to the vast majority of us. We know so little about the circumstances behind their being pushed over the edge. It’s far easier to avoid thinking about such things. I read about people who lost their homes because of a relationship break-up which led to drink and drugs. About a young man whose wife died. He collapsed completely. Mental-health issues and sudden unemployment were key causes of homelessness. The fact is, it could happen to anyone without a safety net to cushion the traumatic experience which leads to depression. It could also happen to someone with family and friends. Once that fact sinks in, it’s far easier to understand and empathize with the person on the street

I’m not sure anarchy would solve any problems. But it’s a relief to see young people who believe in putting themselves on the line, putting their money where their mouth is and fighting idealistically for a cause that is not currently the flavour of the month. It recharges my batteries. Renews hope. I thank them.

Look out for the June 2017 issue of New Internationalist on Homelessness