Collective squats are intentional community groups that are often ignored by American culture because they don’t support our capitalist individual consumer driven lifestyles. A collective squatting community is a group of people living together in an abandoned building. The activity of squatting is illegal in most American cities, but squatters do it any way. The collective squats are made up of people that vary in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, and religion. Their life style, economic situation and political beliefs are the uniting factors. The collective squatters share every thing and are dependent on each other for every thing, including maintain the shelter, food, water, clothing and entertainment. The collective squat is supposed to be a self-sustainable utopia, but it flaws just like any governing system.
Squatting is an attempted solution to homelessness. The “ideal capitalist city aspires to be a mecca of entrepreneurial opportunity, individual prosperity and rampant consumerism.” (Freeman 1) For most, “cities are a place of work, survival, poverty, homelessness, police brutality, discrimination and resistance. The city is increasingly segregated into factions of affluent and destitute.” (Freeman 1) Poverty is looked down upon in our society. American culture promotes the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant belief of the “American Dream” that is deeply routed in our country’s history. The “American Dream” is the belief that any one can achieve success in the terms of material and monetary wealth as long as they work hard. This also means that if you fail to achieve those goals, it is your own fault because you didn’t work hard enough or use the institutions that were created to help you, such as church and education. This belief enforces the idea that good people are reward with success for their hard work and bad people are punished for not working hard enough. The connection between wealth and morality causes homeless people to be viewed as outcasts of society. People are uncomfortable around homeless people because it is a reminds them that the system is flawed and the “American Dream” is elusive for most. Squatting is the rejection of the belief that the “American Dream” is possible or desirable. Ideal squats are “organized under the banner of both anti-poverty and anti-capitalist activism…emphasizing direct action.” (Freeman 2)
I was introduced to a squat in the East Village in New York, New York when I met Jeff in Union Square. Jeff is a 28-year-old man that wears the same black jeans, black t-shirt and leather jacket every day. I’ve seen him around many times, always wearing the same clothing and siting smoking cigarettes by the fountain, but never really talk to him before. One day, I was reading a Nikola Tesla biography and he came over and started talking to me about him. After a long conservation, I realized how intelligent he was and asked him about how he became homeless. He laughed and said, “It just kinda happened. I was traveling, but I’m squatting here now.” We made plans to meet up and he took me to the squat.
I can’t go into specifics of location or type of property in order to protect the squat and its privacy but I can describe what I’ve seen. The squat is an old abandon building that needs to be entered through the back. The main area that is lived in has wood floors with holes in it and a few windows, which are broken or boarded up. There are organized piles of things on the floor. There are milk crates filled with bread, fruits and vegetables, pile of clothing, stacks of books and a few guitars scattered around. The rooftop has some boards and tarps over most of the holes in it, but there are a few uncovered ones. The majority of the beds are combinations of cardboard, newspapers, sleeping bags, blankets, pillows and clothing. Some squatters sleep together, while others sleep by themselves for privacy. There is a couch, small table and a rocking chair, but that’s all the furniture they have. The squat is an abandoned building, so there is no plumbing or electricity. When they have to go to the bathroom, they use the improvised toilet. It is made up of a feces bucket and a urine bucket. They take turns empting the buckets in the street, which goes down into the sewer drain. During the day, local businesses allow the squatters that behave “correctly” to use their bathrooms. No electricity means there is not any use of televisions, laptops, or iPods, which are staples in our current pop culture. There is a radio, but it is battery powered. There are about twelve people squatting there now, but there are seven squatter who plan on staying as long as possible. It’s a very small community and every body knows every one’s business. “Squat actions involve the complex tasks of running a household, sharing community work and developing collective decision making processes…squatting fosters cooperative skills, solidarity among the disenfranchised and ongoing resistance to capitalist values.” (Freeman 4) There is very little privacy because of the dependence on others in an unstable living situation. The police could come by and break up the squat any time, so trust is important. The squatters like to go off and do their own thing once in a while. “Day after day, you are basically doing the same thing every day, so it’s nice to separate from the group occasional. We mostly just hang out in the square or Tompkins,” said Jeff.
Another one of those squatters is Chris. Chris told me about the Guitar he invited and how being denied the patent made him lose every thing and made him resort to squatting. If the patent had been approved he would have been a rich man. He worked on the guitar for about 15 years. I researched this to see if it is true and it is. I read to entire patent. Chris is very intelligent, highly educated and used to be a successful musician. Chris says, “I’m nothing like the man that people think I am. People look at me like I’m lazy and stupid. But, I worked for years on my guitar, making it sound just right. It just didn’t work out.”
At the squat one rainy night, Chris tells me that the rainy days are the worst. Every one comes back because they don’t want to be on streets during the rain. The rain makes sleeping arrangements uncomfortable. The rain comes in from some of the windows and the roof. A few squatters put tarps over books, clothing and blankets to keep them dry and put buckets where the leaks are. The beds get wet and the wood floors can take a day or two to dry. The buckets that collect water leaking from the roof need to be emptied, so the squatters can turns waking up in the middle of the night to empty them. The main concern with the rain is the affect it has on dumpster diving.
Dumpster diving is their main food resource. They panhandle for money and collect bottles and cans, but its never enough money to feed every one. Dumpster diving is retrieving objects, mainly food and clothing out of the dumpster. The underlining principle of dumpster diving is “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.” (Kolowich 1) The political goal of dumpster diving is to make individuals rethink their consumption habits, consume less and cut back on waste. Dumpster divers “hope to nudge people’s habits enough that dumpster diving is no longer viable.” (Kolowich 2) They take turns doing the dumpster diving for the morning collective food share. The share is in the morning, because most it comes from the pervious night’s trash. They do eat more than once a day; it’s just on their own or in a smaller group. Some stores throw away left over food at the end of the night because they make fresh food in the morning. A lot of stores in the area do this, so it is kind of easy to dumpster dive. Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and Whole Foods are the dumpsters visited most by the squatters. Their diet is made up of a lot of prepared food from Starbucks and Whole Foods, raw fruits and vegetables, bagels, cookies, doughnuts and muffins. The rain is a problem because it soaks the trash and removes texture and flavor from the food. They have to be careful what they eat because it’s very easy for them to get food poisoning. Food spoils quickly in the heat. The summer has been really hot so far, which makes dehydration a problem too. The heat will drive you mad and make you feel sick when you sit outside all day all summer long, so you want to eat as healthy as possible. Chris had to go to the hospital for food poisoning after eating day old pizza he found in the trash. It was a 90 something degree-day and it was all he had to eat, so it got him really sick. Kayla and Jeff sat with him at the hospital.
The other day, a few squatters brought back two suitcases filled with clothing that they found in a hotel dumpster. They looked at the clothing and kept stuff that was clean and could be worn. The squatters saved clothing for others that were not there because they thought it might fit them. Money is an issue and better served on food, so free clothing was a good treat for when the others came home. Clothing is rarely paid for and most squatters where the same thing every day until it is worn out. They waste as little as possible because of their anti-mass consumption beliefs, and their personal and collective poverty. There was also some hygiene products, make up, and candy in the suitcases. The candy lasted about five minutes. The squatters went to a Starbucks bathroom to brush their teeth and wash their hair. The make up was used for entertainment purposes, not beauty. Most of the squatters are male and laugh at each other for being so bored that they resorted to drag for entertainment. It’s all in good fun. No signs of real homophobia or hostility. Jeff joke about how pretty Chris looked in his red lipstick and laughed, “I have not gotten laid in over a year. You better sleep with one eye open tonight.” Chris just laughed.
The squatters have to be careful of police because they can and do get arrested for napping on the ground in Union square. Police brutality is a big problem for them. Some police officers treat them like they are less than human. Others feel the need to make examples out of them, so people know that homelessness is not welcome in the square. The public arrests of homeless and squatters repackage these problems as problems “of moral disorder and public safety rather than social injustice.” (Freeman 3) On one of the hottest summer days so far, four different people got arrested for sleeping on the ground in Union square within a 5 minute time period. I witnessed two arrests of squatters I know. The first was Tucker. Tucker has been stealing beer and passing out in Union Square for at least 5 years and locals know him. After laying down for a few minutes in the same place he always sleeps, he was kicked in the chest by two cops and told ”fucking move or get your head kicked in” Tucker yelled, “what the fuck?” As he awoke, then was beaten again, handcuffed and dragged into the cop car. The second arrest, Sid, was not as quick and easy. Sid is a 22-year-old alcoholic punk traveler. He has some kind of multiple personalities issue that comes out when he is drunk. Sid was so drunk, he literally could not move or speak when the cops woke him up violently, and asked him to move. I told the cops I was his friend and I would move him to lawn, but they told me that I couldn’t. Suddenly, the amount of cops grown from 2 to at least 10 or 12. Then, more people came over to see what was happening. That’s when the cops started to arrest him for being drunk in public. He resisted and they kicked him, grabbed him and tried to cuff him, but couldn’t. One officer brought over a fishnet looking thing to restrain him that even covered his face. Then, they carried him to a police car. He was already drunk passed out on a 90 something degree-day and having trouble breathing, but they covered his face, making it more difficult to breathe. It was deemed necessary because he was crying too hard and uncontrollable.
Not all interactions with the police and others in the area are that violent or extreme. Others generally meet the squatters with disrespect and suspicion. Chris, Jeff, Matty and I went to Barnes & Noble a few times just to look books and walk around with free air conditioning. I noticed that we were being watched by security the entire time. A lot of people just assume that they are criminals because of the stereotypes associated with poverty. A few stores and restaurants kick the squatters out on the reasoning that they are taking up space for actually consumers. The police are sometimes called in to remove sleeping homeless and the squatters. They are really rude and disrespectful towards them. They asked us a lot of accusing questions when trying to figure out if they are dangerous or not. The squatters feel like they should be able to sit and hang out just like every body else. “People buy one coffee and then sit at Starbucks all day. So why can’t I do the same? Its because I’m smelly and dirty.” Said Jeff.
The squat has been around for a few years and is still working on getting organized and successfully functional for the group as a whole. It has been difficult because people tend to travel, decided to leave and new people join. The changing of the individual members makes it harder to come to a routine consensus of how things should be run when every one isn’t always part of the decision making process because of absence, not exclusion. The East Village squat would be more ideal if it was better organized. Squats need “ mutually agreed upon house rules to establish how the building is to be used.” (Chatterton 3) Squatting has the potential to bring security to the ignored homeless communities. “Squatting creates space for much needed community projects.” (Chatterton 1) But, these community projects can’t be successful, if there isn’t equal participation of every member of the community. The squat could become more ideal if it would exclude individuals who don’t put much effort into the community activities and don’t follow the established rules. The squat has a few general unspoken rules, such as help out and stay out of legal trouble. But, there is still some theft and drug use I n the squat. There is criminal activity in all communities and societies. There is one squatter, Matty, who is always getting arrested or going to the hospital. Matty is a heroin addict, compulsive liar, violent, aggressive and selfish. His self-destructiveness pays a toll on the community for a few reasons. He causes unwanted attention from police, gives the squatters and homeless a bad image to the rest of the society, and spends collective money on drugs, bails and hospital bills. The squat would function better if they excluded him in the future. I think excluding individuals that are harmful to the community’s survival is essential for the squat. It would eliminate a lot of the stresses and make things more efficient. Currently, they won’t turn any homeless person away as long as the contribute something to the group. Once the squat gets more organized and individuals are committed to creating a true collective basic needs will be met and there will be the opportunity to do more and larger community projects. The squat should start off by doing more than just one meal share a day in order to build their ideal collectivists squat community.
Chatterton, Paul. “Squatting is still legal, Necessary and Free: A Brief Intervention in
the Corporate City”. Antipode. vol 34 issue 1, p1, 7p. Jan 2002
Abstract: Squatting is a solution to homelessness, empty properties and speculation. it provides homes for those who can’t get public housing and can’t afford extortionate rents. Squatting creates a space for much needed community projects.
Freeman, Lisa. “Squatting and the City”. Canadian Dimension. Vol 38. Issue 6. P44-60.
Abstract: Movies and television programs invoke imagery of the big city as sites of pleasure and prestige, a mecca of entrepreneurial opportunity, individual prosperity and rampant consumerism. Underneath the glitz and the glam, cities are not sexy.
Kolowich, Steve. “Princeton Student finds Passion in Garbage”. Chronical of Higher
education. Vol 55. Issue 24. pA6. Feb 2009.
Abstract: A profile of freeganism, a vegan food activist movement which searches for food sources through commercial waste.