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Did you notice our wizard government has magically criminalised squatting in empty residential houses? This follows hysterical headlines about smelly squatters and respectable homeowners, as angry as the three bears finding Goldilocks asleep in their bed. Of course this is an exaggerated caricature, because most squatting takes place in properties left unused for far too long by speculators, corporations and absentee landlords. Why would squatters attract bad publicity by invading a private home? Not that this has never happened, but it's obviously pretty exceptional. In general, squatting is about homeless people finding somewhere to live, quietly and for as long as they can. Squatting may be something we'd rather not face up to; a sign of a creaking, cracking system. Compare it to unemployment, or protests which turn violent, or the growing numbers of people imprisoned - these are signs that things aren't working, even in one of the world's most 'developed' countries. People are suffering, and the basic need for a home is a massive problem for many. Anyone buying their own home might forget how difficult it can be to get a place, at various stages in life, or in circumstances ranging from unemployment to abusive relationships. An empty property is a crime when people are homeless and desperate. Squatting takes the pressure off. It's not a social problem - it's a symptom of one. Once upon a time there never was a golden age of happy housing sufficiency. On the contrary, squatting has always been necessary. After the war it was widespread, because so many houses had been bombed. Sheffield has a long and interesting history of squats, despite clamp downs in recent years. Famous squats include the year-long Matilda Social Centre, complete with café, music, internet, free shop, films and workshops. Occupy Sheffield's move into the former Salvation Army Citadel near the Peace Gardens last year was another example. Sheffield Indymedia archives much of the people's history of these organised actions. There's no shortage of accommodation, just a bad system of distribution. There are far more empty properties than people needing a roof over their heads. Land ownership in this country is in too few hands, and consequently prices are shocking. The powerful construction industry complains that it needs planning restrictions removed. This is a lie. The big players go to the High Court to 'out appeal' any council or pressure group. Many planning permissions are granted where building doesn't go ahead. Developers benefit from overbloated property prices and low supply. Heads they win, tails they win. Homelessness has shot up. Rents are exploitative. That's one reason why the Sheffield Defend Council Housing group came together recently and ensured an 88% majority vote to return the city's council estates back to the Council, away from covert privatisation moves and back to direct accountability. Demographics matters as well. We're living longer, with many older people staying on in much-loved homes, sometimes larger than they need. The result is that housing for others becomes limited. One answer is easy; homeshare. Younger people needing a place can bring a breath of fresh air to the lives of older people with spare bedrooms, couples or single, perhaps feeling lonely or isolated. Usually a bit of work around the house is agreed in return for accommodation. This is so clearly a great idea, it's hard to believe there isn't yet a Sheffield Homeshare scheme. Anyone reading this want to set one up? Meanwhile, like the 1920s prohibition of alcohol, the criminalisation of squatting could well see a resurgence of activity. Squatting commercial property is only a civil offence. Seen any empty offices or factories? Squatting activist groups are gearing up to challenge the new law and how it's implemented. The Advisory Service For Squatters has been established for years, and a new group, the Eviction Resistance Network has also popped up. There doesn't seem to be a Sheffield squatting support group at the moment, but perhaps that will change. If it does, Alt-Sheff will be pleased to bring news. Watch this vacant space. )

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