As many readers know, the British Home Stores (BHS) was until recently an iconic feature of many a British High Street, and then sadly the firm went bust, leaving many buildings empty, including on my own patch Southend-on-Sea. As readers will also be aware, empty buildings can and do attract squatters, often folk who have nowhere else to live, and that is currently the case in Southend.
Yesterday, I was contacted out of the blue, to give my take on what is happening and why. I duly obliged and found myself interviewed for last night’s BBC’s “Look East” program (see here and also here for another clip giving a squatter perspective). Folk who know me will know I tend to speak my mind but also I have some savvy to know that the way to get results often means treading a fine line, often recognizing people see things differently, in this case whether or not to sympathise with the squatters, and often the secret to getting beneficial things done is to engage with the disparate parties.
My own contribution as far as the BBC interview went is 7 seconds of my “imagining” why squatting in the empty BHS building was an attractive proposition for the squatters. In the chat that went before, me and my colleague (also interviewed) speculated as to why there is a homeless situation here in Southend (which is in effect merely a microcosm of the national picture), what is being done and what could and should be done. I have blogged on those very issues in the past and am not going to labour the point here other than to say there may well be around 100 rough sleepers in Southend, whose circumstances, needs and strategies for survival vary widely, and I am more interested in facts rather than opinions and action rather than talk. My previous homeless blog (see here) outlines my own practice in the matter, and while what I do is limited, barely scratching the surface, it is still something, and we can all do something, starting with treating the homeless as human beings.
The bottom line is there is not enough affordable accommodation in the town and this despite specialist agencies working on behalf of the homeless trying their best to help. This is compounded by the fact that many who are homeless have unaddressed issues e.g. mental health, addiction and an “inability” to go along with “the system”. Even if they could pay for something “basic” (and many who are homeless can’t e.g. they don’t qualify for benefits) they are still not an attractive proposition to potential landlords in a letters market. Some landlords who take in the homeless are clearly in the “dodgy” category. While charitable agencies for accommodating the homeless and the local Council are limited in what they do, it should be said they do something and that something is significant. As for squatters and rough sleepers, most act responsibly but some don’t, regretably; most prefer NOT to squat or rough sleep but some do; and while some appear to be ok, most have needs that are unmet, which often relates to why that person is homeless in the first place.
I haven’t studied the movements of rough sleepers in too much depth (although I know a good deal more than most) but I reckon some of the same people (I understand the number to be around 10), who are squatting in BHS, previously squatted in the Royal Terrace Hotel and Nosh, stayed in various car parks, spent time in the central bus station, camped on the Cliffs etc. In all these cases they were moved on by the powers that be, sometimes having to resort to due legal process in order to do so. Sadly, the alternatives are not good. Sleeping in shop doorways is problematic e.g. subject to abuse and attack and the elements and being moved on by the Police and sometimes being prosecuted and fined.
So I conclude with three questions (remembering my intention is to focus on the facts rather than take sides):
- Why do we as a nation allow the housing crisis to continue and could not more creative solutions be found to alleviate that crisis, e.g. using empty buildings?
- When the homeless are “moved on”, where do we move them on to and when they do not do what the authorities say they should, should we not take time to find out why?
- If you were faced with the prospect of squatting in a niceish empty building or living on the streets, what would you do?