Does Anyone Actually Want to Criminalise Squatting?

04/11/2011 14:39 GMT | Updated 02/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Catherine Garrity challenges misconceptions about squatters. She believes squats can bring communities together and - despite what the government might have you believe - she won't take over your house when you pop out for a pint of milk.

I'll be honest, before meeting Garrity and other squatters on Well Street in Hackney I was a bit nervous. The only experience I had of squatters was as a child.

When I was young I became convinced the abandoned house at the end of my road was haunted so I started 'spying' on it. The occupants, who were squatters, found my 'spying' annoying and in short told me to bugger off. I took their advice.

However, as time went by the squatters were evicted, the building torn down and in its place a generic block of flats built.

Garrity has been trying to fight such an eviction for years. Originally from Omagh, Northern Ireland, she studied at York University before working for Fair Trade and being made redundant three times.

The young activist now runs media campaigns for SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) and performs at poetry slams. She has squatted above a laundrette in Hackney for the past month.

Having squatted for years Garrity is aware of the stigma around squatters. She was recently removed from the Well Furnished building in Hackney Wick which squatters had converted into a community space offering free yoga classes to local people.

Now the 26-year-old poet is protesting against plans to criminalise squatting. Just over seven days ago it was announced that the government was planning to make it illegal to squat in residential buildings and on Tuesday, 1 November the clause was voted through.

The action comes despite a government consultation showing the general public are not against squatting. The Ministry of Justice were told by 2,216 members of the public that they would be concerned about the "impact of criminalisation". Only 25 people responded saying they were concerned about the "harm squatting can cause".

Garrity is outraged at government plans saying, "The government don't represent what people want any more. 96% of people voted against criminalising squatting in a recent consultation but look what they are doing".

Talking about a protest to save squats, held in Parliament Square this Monday, Garrity said "the police were quite violent; one of them pushed a girl off a bike."

"The protest wasn't antagonistic, even though a lot of squatters have a negative relationship with the police. Thankfully I was able to plead with a police officer to be released from a kettle that had formed around us", she continued.

Garrity thinks it is a "sad fact" that the only way protesters can get attention is by getting arrested.

When asked, "What will you do if you lose your right to squat?" she responded, "These consultations are governments just going through the motions but they don't mean anything. Getting arrested and being fined, which is what will happen if squatting is made illegal; I don't know what I will do."

Having talked to young squatters, impassioned about this issue, it is hard to understand the government's motivation for putting through a bill that is so strongly opposed.

Garrity said reflectively, "I'm a poet and I don't make a lot of money. I don't have enough for rent. It is a sad fact that one per cent of people own 70% of land in the UK. If a property isn't being used why can't someone else use it?"

The Irish campaigner was joined by hundreds of other protesters at the Houses of Parliaments this week. People are suspicious of what they see as a "sneaking in" of the criminalisation of squatting despite the fact there is no consensus on whether it is a good idea.

CRISIS, a homeless charity that challenges myths about squatters, released a survey in October revealing that 40% of the homeless people asked had squatted at least once in their life. They believe squatting is a "homelessness issue". Garrity has said that without her squat she will be left out on the streets.