hat do a former Manchester United player and the pope have in common? Quiet at the back: both have better opinions on and approaches to squatting than the current government.
Gary Neville succeeded in winning over half the country, and even the most fervent Manchester City supporters, this weekend after telling homeless squatters who’d taken up residence in the former stock exchange building he owns that they could stay for the winter. Not just that, he’d help them find homes as long as they allowed access for the staff developing the building, owned by Neville and Ryan Giggs, into a boutique hotel.
A crackdown on squatting by the coalition government painted the practice as a lifestyle choice by young anarchists who have the disposable income to rent. As with so many Conservative policies, the research doesn’t bear this out. On any given night 6% of homeless people squat and 40% of homeless single people do so regularly. Research indicates that squatters are also significantly more vulnerable than the general homeless population: 34% of homeless people who squat have been in care; 42% have physical ill health or a disability; and 41% report mental ill-health, compared with 19%, 27%, and 32% respectively of the homeless population who have not squatted.
Even ignoring the humanitarian cost of criminalising squatting during a housing crisis, it’s impossible to look at the statistics on empty buildings and not feel a sense of rage. In England alone there are an estimated 726,238 empty buildings, which could house a total of 1.8m homeless people. Put simply, by banning the practice of abandoning buildings or legalising squatting, the country could solve its homelessness crisis overnight.
Instead we’re faced with a situation where a young apprentice can come to London in the hope of finding a job, struggle to find a home and instead end up in jail. That’s the price of aspiration – sleep on the streets or end up in jail: the rights of absent property owners are worth far more than your human right to shelter.