New Internationalist

Homeless in a city of empty properties

Belgravia houses [Related Image]
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

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  1. #1 ST 02 Feb 17

    It is anything but a ramble. But rather a very honest poignant description of the dilemma faced by many. And what comes out clearly from this piece is the need for compassion. The Trumps of the world makes it appear that compassion is in terrible short supply. But thankfully, I do not believe that Trump and his kind are the voice of the majority. How these persons, who clearly represent the interests of the rich, get elected is beyond me. But nevertheless the innumerable individuals and organisations who reach out to those denied of even the basic means of survival, must surely give us hope.

    While Trump's election and subsequent Nazi sounding diktats (what next Trump, gas chambers for Muslims?) has cast a veil of gloom and hopelessness amongst most people, but we must draw hope from the millions who have been protesting. High judicial officers willing the face the wrath of the self declared almighty (the Americans elected a president but he thought that they chose a God) like Sally Yates must surely be the lights in the tunnel.

    And to all the Mancunians who covered the anti homeless spikes with blankets and cushions I salute you

  2. #2 Stan 02 Feb 17

    We are living in a world and an age where wealth is being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Oxfam's report on poverty in Jan 2016 said that just 62 men owned what half the world's poorest people owned. This January that figure has come down to just 8 men.
    Forbes magazine argues that there is no co-relation between the concentration of wealth and poverty(

    In the four decades that I have worked with some of the world's poorest people, I have come across innumerable arguments to defend the status quo. The most common one being ’it's their fault, they are lazy’. the other one that did the rounds in the late 90s and the early part of the new millenium, was ’But it's all trickling down and every one will get richer’. But Jeremy Dorfman has come up with a new one. He admits economic inequality does exist but cleverly argues its not the fault of the rich so please don't make them feel guilty. In fact he tells Oxfam it is wrong in villifying these 8 men - Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg. And goes on to talk of how they made their money - by selling things to people in developed nations except for Carlos Slim who operated in Latin America but who in any case sold his services to wealthier persons who were willing to pay for them. Specious but clever argument indeed, Jeremy. Smacks of the argument often used in rape cases - ’these were consenting adults’.

    He then advises Oxfam, in what almost seems like a threat when he concludes with ’After all, making enemies of rich people seems a bad strategy for a charity.’ This is EXACTLY what I have heard wealthy landowners say to empoverished adivasis whom they have held in bonded labour for generations. Or blood sucking money lenders issue similar dire warning to their ’clients’ locked into irrevocable debt because of phenomenally high rates of interest. Don't mess us we are rich.

    But Dorfman misses the point. It is not about these 8 great men. It is not about individuals. It is about a system that goes all the way down into the remotest village, and allows for one person with hugely disproportionate wealth to exploit others in myriad and often not so visible ways. A society that allows this growing inequality surely cannot call itself civilised. Venal yes, civilised no.
    Ask those who occupied the house in Belgravia.

  3. #3 Patti Chico 02 Feb 17

    It doesn't matter if one is a property owner, one can still have concern for those less fortunate and seek political solutions that mitigate or remove that misfortune.

    As the wealth of the world is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of the few, any attempt to quieten the educated and the articulate, should be resisted. So don't feel guilty Mari, or feel that because of your own good fortune, you can no longer represent and argue for the values that you hold.

    The point about the truly powerless, is that they have no voice and they are to often the victims of learned helplessness. They need people like yourself who can speak up for them or provide the resources and support necessary if they are ever to speak in their own voices.

  4. #4 Maggie Barlow 09 Feb 17

    Solidarity is the only way forward for the working man. I'm ashamed to say, that at the age of 62, I have only just read Robert Tressell's 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'. It's hard to believe that it was written over 100 years ago and not only yesterday. Once we recognise how much we depend on one another as a community, the welfare of that community becomes paramount. No one 'deserves' to be poor and homeless just as no one 'deserves' to be wealthy. We are all human beings, custodians of the planet and all who live on it.

  5. #5 Red Robbo 09 Feb 17

    A '..squatting collective takes over Qatari general’s £17mn London townhouse' (, 2 February).   With a name like that, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians have achieved one of their aims - exposure!   They wish to draw our attention to the 'problem' of  growing homelessness alongside  thousands of  properties in London alone, and over 200,000  in England, which  have been unoccupied for more than six months.   A.N.A.L. is supported by a number groups concerned with hosing and homelessmess, including Architects for Social Housing who tweeted 'Homes for people, not for profit'.   Indeed.   But because housing is produced for profit there is no possibility of a rational approach to housing within capitalism.  Engels made this clear as far back out as 1872:    ‘As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself’ (The Housing Question).

  6. #6 Wesley Sandel 10 Feb 17

    If real estate isn't serving the population (i.e., the People) then just tear it down and put up something that does serve the people.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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