Thursday, 06 December 2012

The right to shelter: some positive words about squatting I don’t need much reminding that I live in a brutal, primitive society, one which has imprisoned a young man for sheltering in an empty house. I'm also now keenly aware that the influential Centre for Social Justice does not see unequal access to housing as one of ‘the root causes of poverty and social breakdown in the UK’. Yesterday The Guardian published a broad ranging article by Steve Rose, on squatters. Here are three quick points: (i) Rose notes that ‘What the squatting dispute boils down to is a split between those who consider private property to be sacred, and those who would prioritise the right to shelter.’ Indeed, and it’s a no-brainer if ever I saw one. (ii) I suspect there might have been more about the constructive role of squatters in patching up buildings and thereby saving resources: ‘In Dutch there is a word krakers – literally "crackers" – to describe the type of constructive squatter who fixes up damaged buildings. "Squatters quietly restore house" is a story that rarely makes the papers, although in the 70s in Amsterdam, hundreds of squatters moved into and repaired dilapidated buildings in the historic Nieuwmarkt area, and fought to save the neighbourhood from large-scale demolition and redevelopment. It was the beginning of a successful conservation movement in the city.’ (iii) It’s not a great reflection on our society that people have to squat, but perhaps we should celebrate what they do as an example of collective resilience (this of course is partly why squatters are anathema to the Haves): ‘In the broader sense, what ties together these disparate instances of squatting is human beings' capacity to organise and provide for themselves.’ Rose quotes Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow cities: a billion squatters: "Wherever you go in the developing world, and, I would argue with most of the squatters in the UK and the US, you're talking about a notable act of self reliance by people facing a system that does not provide housing they can afford," says Neuwirth. "This is something we should be saluting, rather than looking at it as some kind of horrific, criminal approach." Previously: 'Your logic is a dog.' Systematically increasing exclusion
Poverty: curtains or blinkers? Yesterday morning I had a meeting at home, concerning one of the poverty projects I’m involved in. Unconsciously as we talked, gazing out of the window I happened to notice curtains being drawn in a house across the back. Come lunchtime and at last some high profile criticism of Tory ministers’ mythology of ‘scroungers’ who laze at home ‘with the curtains drawn’ while ‘decent hard working people’ strive to get the economy back on track. No matter that more and more of those working people face grinding hardship; as Polly Toynbee notes, this is mendacious, disreputable dishonesty. And some people, like my neighbour, have the curtains drawn during the day because they work nights. How have we got to this wretched level, as a society, with this smirking politicisation of the misery of millions? It’s offensive to pretend that ‘we’re all in this together’. As I wrote a couple of years ago, Some are poncing about with Pimms on the upper deck while some are clinging desperately to the sides, and many detached are screaming from the rising waters. Responsible politicians would acknowledge that, then do something about it. Even Demos are a little concerned about how policy makers will interpret and exploit their recent analysis of poverty. They point to the ways in which multiple deprivation gets associated with anti-social behaviour or criminality: it is not impossible that the Government or media might brand one or other of the groups associated with a type of poverty (perhaps those with the most entrenched poverty or negative features such as poor education and material deprivation) ‘neighbours from hell’. Demos have set up a website for the project, Poverty in perspective. I’ve been really impressed with the report, with it's practical, meaningful breakdown of 15 categories of poverty. It’s timely in the way it shows how The most prevalent types of poverty are among the working poor and the recently redundant (as a sign of the current economic climate), who have sophisticated financial coping strategies and lack the social disadvantages all too commonly conflated with low income. It also helps show something that my colleagues and I will be ‘striving’ (can I use that word?) to do, which is to emphasise how levels of income and outgoings are only one aspect of that experience.

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