Squatting in Bristol

“A house is made of walls and beams; a home is built with love and dreams.”

This week I visited a squat in Bristol dubbed ‘The Red Factory’ to meet with a group of Bristol squatters.

It’s a dark Monday evening as I walk into Portland Square, a location as well known for the grand buildings that surround it as it is for the nefarious inhabitants that dot its footpaths. The square is dimly lit by lantern style street lights which surround a fenced off park, the kind you see in the wealthier areas of London. It only takes a few seconds upon entering the square for me to find the building I am looking for, spray painted in the window are the words ‘Peace and Love’. I ring the doorbell and wait for a minute for someone to answer the door, after a brief explanation as to why I am here I am shown through a stone walled hallway, up some stairs and into the main room of the squat. Roughly ten people are sat around the room on an assortment of sofas and chairs cobbled together, the room is lit with a few strip lights setting a moody yet inviting scene. Anita Ekberg stares out from a crumpled film poster for ‘La Dolce Vita’, statements, dictums and graffiti cover the walls along with posters and pictures, all of which create an atmosphere similar to that of an art studio. It is certainly a contradiction to the austere picture I confess to have imagined.

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A weekly BHAM (Bristol Housing Action Movement) meeting is taking place so I take a seat on the floorboards. The group are discussing things that are needed for the house such as plumbing parts, shower heads and curtains. It is an informal and relaxed meeting with people waiting patiently for their turn to talk, someone mentions that they had spoken to a group of Bulgarians who were looking for a squat in Bristol, three people volunteer to help them find a place to live; “If they come here and tell us they want a place, we can go straight out and find somewhere” says one of the volunteers, this is one of the main activities of BHAM.

After the meeting I spoke to one of the organisers about the group, Gerry told me; “BHAM is a group of squatters and their supporters. They are there to aid and support people who are homeless or who would like to squat. We find them somewhere to live, help them to get in if needs be, provide them with materials, court help and generally be around if anything goes wrong.”

Those of you who remember the coverage in the local press surrounding a group of squatters occupying Bristol North Baths early last year will have unwittingly encountered BHAM already. That particular campaign was exemplary of the group’s political activities; “we campaign against the privatisation of public land and housing and for the defence of public space” reads the BHAM website. From my two visits to the Red Factory I have witnessed the important role that BHAM plays in helping the homeless of Bristol, it is on the frontline in a very literal sense being that it is made up of homeless and squatters alike. As well as supporting Bristol squatters, they are an important vehicle in transferring people from the street into some sort of accommodation and where possible they support people with getting into official housing. What BHAM offers that is seemingly unavailable anywhere else is its role in boosting the morale of people living on the streets, helping to deal with some of the problems they can expect to face.

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Gerry explained the ways in which BHAM helps to do this; “We see if they want to do anything creative like run a nursery, newspapers, or whether they are just isolated. We work with people to make them feel like they are not on their own, raising people’s morale. You find homeless people can be just stuck in a doorway in Clifton, which can be very lonely, whereas if you’re squatting with a group you feel that you’ve got people behind you.”

As someone picks up a guitar on the other side of the room and begins to strum ‘East of Eden’, I’m offered a can of cider by a man named Rav who tells me about his experience of squatting; “I finished university in Portsmouth,” he explained, “moved to Bristol and started getting into music. I was working in a call centre and at Blue Mountain in the evenings, then I just thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. I made the decision to do things that I wanted to do and that benefited the community”, Rav now plans to teach Maths to the residents of the Red Factory.

If you’re reading this article alongside a copy of the Daily Mail, then it is likely you have just involuntarily spat out a chunk of smoked salmon; there is however, a great number of people who choose squatting as an alternative lifestyle. The greatest wave of squatting seen in Britain came after the Second World War when construction of houses had been postponed and a great deal had been destroyed by bombing; servicemen returned from battle with nowhere to live. Today the picture isn’t quite as bleak, but lack of affordable housing and the high number of empty properties (689,675 in England according to the Empty Homes Agency) has led many people into choosing to live in squats. The squatting movement as an alternative lifestyle was at its peak in the late sixties and early seventies, as Steve Platt recalls; “People had a sense of living somewhere special, symbolised by the street carnivals and parties which became a regular feature…squatting began to be more than just finding a roof, it offered a sense of community, a way of life in its own right.” The Red Factory offers this same sense of community.

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Until a month ago The Red Factory was a disused, abandoned cardboard factory, now it’s a community arts centre for the homeless with film nights, yoga, a meditation room, foreign language lessons and maths lessons being made available to a community that feels disenfranchised and who would not normally have access to these facilities. It has been transformed and continues to be transformed; people who need to eat can be fed here. If they need a place to sleep there are people who will go out with you and find an empty building for you to sleep in.

It would be an oversight to write about squatting without acknowledging that there is an serious inequality inherent in today’s society, it is normal for some people to own several houses and for others to sleep in a doorway. Of all the worthy causes that would have benefited from the billions of pounds that were instead spent on bailing out a small British bank, housing the homeless would be one, squatting and indeed homelessness will continue as long as the people that do it continue to be ignored by the government of the fourth largest economy in the world.

Squatting is to many of those who partake a political statement, a reaction to lack of housing and to more general problems of capitalism. For people who believe housing is an inalienable human right, squatting is as much about protest as it is finding shelter. The political side of squatting has created movements around the world, both in and out of developed Western capitalist societies. Squatting can be a political statement that emphasises the gap between the wealthy and the poor and in countries with strong socialist parties squatting can be used to solve homelessness. Residents of The Red Factory were reluctant to talk about their politics as many of them engage in direct action.

‘A house is made of walls and beams; a home is built with love and dreams’, this sentiment is echoed by the residents of The Red Factory. What they have created is much more than a roof over their head, it is a community, a place they feel a part of. This was expressed by James, a squatter since 1986; “It’s not just about a place to live, if it ever becomes that it’s wrong, this is a place for people to express themselves in a positive way.”

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My visits to The Red Factory taught me the importance of these community squats, not just to keep people off the streets, but to provide a sense of worth to homeless people. It also led me to dismiss entirely any legitimacy I had attributed to the moral objection to squatting which I had contemplated momentarily in my ignorance, the notion that squatting is wrong simply because someone somewhere owns the property. It is worth considering who commits the greatest sin, those who finds shelter in an empty building or those who keeps several buildings empty until it best serves their bank balance. My opinion is that housing is an inalienable human right which trumps any right to private property. When I asked Gerry what he thought of the moral objection that some people have, his answer was simple; “Try being homeless.”

“The poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man.”
Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers, the earliest squatters.

The Legal Stuff:
- Squatting is not strictly speaking a criminal offence, it is a civil offence against the landlord/owner of the property which to all intents and purposes means that it is an unlawful practice but not illegal.
- You can be convicted of a criminal offence if you have caused damage to the property by gaining entry, covered under the Criminal Justice Act 1994.
- The landlord/owners are well within their rights to evict squatters but they must go to a civil court in order to gain a possession order.
- Squatters do have limited rights. A landlord cannot remove you by violent or forced means, only through the legal process.
- Under squatters rights, if a property has been lived in for 12 years then it effectively becomes the property of the squatters.

Rich Hall

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8 Responses to “Squatting in Bristol”

  1. CARLOS AZNAR Says:

    hello !

    í´m spanish and maybe i have to go to Bristol to live .
    i´d like to live in one squat .

    can you give any phone number or email to contact?

    it´s for long time.

    thanks

    Carlos

  2. jay Says:

    i know the red factory and it realy is this gd

  3. Pzalem Says:

    come back and visit soon theyre redecorating :)

  4. mia Says:

    hello,
    i am in squat in London, but i like to go to Bristol. Can somebody give me an idea where can i find some squat in Bristol?
    thank you so much!!
    mia

  5. mia Says:

    hello again,

    i have got tha job in Bristol, so I really need a room somewhere. I hope, somebody knows about it something..

    mia

  6. John Says:

    There is a squatt in Montpelier in Bristol, I will see if I can find a contact for you Mia xx

  7. Richard Hall Says:

    Hi mia, i can put you in touch with BHAM. They are a really nice bunch and will help you find a place. Send me an email waterinmajorca@hotmail.com

  8. mia Says:

    Hi John,

    I can wait until 5 or 6 in January. I will begining the work in 6 th of Jan.
    my contact email is 21gramm@gmail.com I cant see every day, but i prove.. Thank You, because help me!!

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