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Occupying a house? Squatting 101

Steve Russell, who has been squatting for years, explains some basics of squatting.

How does one occupy a house? Ask my landlord. Wait, I don’t have a landlord.  I live in an occupied house. Because I need this room. This small space for comfort. I’ve lived in the shelters. I wanted to avoid them, the few of them that are left. I wanted a house. But this was new territory to me. I had to find a way to navigate this terra incognita of squatting.

So how does one occupy a house? Begin with fear. Yes, we need a motive if we’re to occupy a house. And the streets are tough. Good thing I know the streets. You might say that I’m a street veteran. A guy who’s been around. Around the block, as we say back home. In some ways I’m lucky.  I know D.C.. But not everyone does. Especially occupiers. We occupiers tend to be world-weary fellow travelers.

How does one occupy a house? One searches the neighborhoods for boarded up property. I take notes. If I want to know more, I can go online to Zillow.com, the real estate site, or the Office of Public Records. I prefer as little mystery as possible when dealing with abandoned property. Squatting is, after all, only semi-legal. But that doesn’t mean you lack all protection.

But forget protection. You’re a squatter, and there’s not a safe way to squat. Squatting isn’t the same as sex. Safe squatting?  Get a lock. It’s better than a condom. Go the the Office of Public Records. If no one owns the house, you can squat legally. Which doesn’t exactly make squatting safe, but it cuts down on police harassment.

How does one occupy a house?  If, as is usual, the house has ten plus years of accumulated rubbage inside, one cleans the house. It’s ugly. It stinks. One needs a large supply of heavy duty lawn bags. And muscle. And patience. And a place to dispose of the junk. If the neighbors are not too nosy (who am I kidding, all neighbors are nosy), one might get by with simply lugging bags of garbage outside. When one occupies a house, one must hope for discrete neighbors.

How does one occupy a house? Once inside, it’s necessary to secure the place. You don’t want just anyone in a house that is being occupied illegally. Yes, the house must be locked. Which isn’t easy. You can’t simply nail the place shut. The place has already been nailed shut.  Someone with the know how and tools must remove the lock, take it to a locksmith and get keys made. Once the keys are made, one is on the way to being an squatter. Which is a far cry from being a homeowner, but it beats the streets.

How does one occupy a house? Carry candles. And bottled water. Wouldn’t it be nice to have electricity? And running water? Of course. Life without the normal bourgeois amenities isn’t easy. But we’re squatters, right? And who said that would be easy? Be careful with the candles. Stay awake when they’re lit. Don’t drink too much. Don’t pass out. Keep the water handy. Buy large quantities. Learn to hand wash. They did this sort of thing back in the day. As for drying said clothes, let’s hope it’s summer and the windows of the house open. Wet clothes tend to stink and they don’t feel good. Let it be known that wet clothes suck.

Still want to occupy a house? Okay. Think about sanitation. It’s good not to stink. If one is occupying a house without running water, have a backup. Friends, perhaps. Those quirky “live inside” kind of people. It’s good to know a few of them. But also have a backup. Shelters offer showers. Find them.

How does one occupy a house? Really, you play it by ear. The desperate are excellent improvisers. And the fearful are good at hiding. Many of us in the squatting movement are more than a little desperate. Not unusual. We’re not merely occupiers. We’re also Americans. Just like you.

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