Squatting is freedom (or is it not) ? The view of a Big Issue seller

How I have known José, a Big Issue seller with a great sens of humour.

The Big Issue is an important institution in the UK. It is a great magazine but also a great social enterprise that many places should adopt. By selling the Big Issue magazine homeless people can earn money which helps them get off the streets. For some it is a temporary solution that helps them move on to employment and housing of their own. For others it proves a continuous source of income as it gives them enough to sustain a living.
The magazine itself makes for great reading, ‘the type of journalism you would pay for’ is the magazine’s strap line and I agree, as do many more people.

José is in the later group, happy to earn enough for his immediate needs. During one of our earlier conversations I asked him if he goes to the hostel that is near by to where he sells his magazines. His answer was ‘no, I don’t go there, it’s no good, full of junkies, not clean and not safe’. This came as a surprise as I had positive thoughts about these places that provide emergency accommodation to those most in need of a shelter. But his comments made me think again. After all what do I know of the practicalities of being in a hostel?

So where do you go, I continued. I squat he said and added ‘squatting is freedom; we are a community, we have our roles, keep the place in good condition etc’.

Is squatting really freedom, I thought to myself? Probably not for me but it seems that it is for him and indeed for many other people. Squatting is something that did fascinate me back in my student days as something that was cool and radical but not as a long term option. The main issue for me was (don’t laugh) cleanness, probably due to my Albanian heritage (Albanians are obsessed with cleanness in their houses and make it a national value). And when I say cleanness I mean the possibility for me to keep ‘my space’ clean, with no dust or crumbs on the floor. The squats I had seen seemed to offer that kind of option for people’s private spaces and also this is backed by what José is telling me, so in a way that could have been possible. But what really held me back was imagining my parents’ shocked faces, were they to see me in a squat (would their beloved daughter be able to stay in such places, a ‘no go’ area for Albanian mentality?!)

But  back to José, it seems that it is a better choice for him to squat than to be in a hostel. And it also makes sense with his lifestyle ‘of a free man that doesn’t want to be tied to any responsibility and wants to be able to travel anywhere’. And of course José has his own political views and opposes ‘the establishment, the use of money, etc’. He quotes in Spanish ‘human beings are the only species that need money to survive’.

We have a good laugh about the anti-establishment and the revolution that is needed to change the current system. Despite his lifestyle and his political opinions José is as realistic as anyone can be and that is why he has chosen to work by selling the Big Issue.  

But squatting is now illegal (since September last year) and José might get in trouble as a result. Of course he knows this, and I need not worry about how he protects himself as he is a long time squatter. It is not too late before he mentions the 350,000 properties that lie empty in this country for various reasons. And then adds that there are other illegal things that are tolerated such as begging and he points to the place where another homeless stays and asks for money. Although both are illegal it seems that they are often tolerated, something that gives people like José and others in more dire situation, some respite. I make a note to myself that this tolerance from authorities is a bit similar to tax avoidance, another tolerance but of a much more significant scale in monetary terms which for the more is legal (?!). 

We could continue talking about all the abnormalities of the economic and political order forever, but I need to go to work (José has already started his working day!!).

I did take some photos of José earlier in the month. Initially he didn’t want to. He was very skeptical of the internet and the use I would make of his images. Fair enough I thought. And I tried to explain that it was for the blog etc. One morning he said ‘ok for the photos, but you have to bring me caramels. I love caramels’. So one morning with a pack of Cadbury eclair caramels in my hand I went to take his photos and he was lovely. He played  the game and enjoyed the attention created in the street as his usual customers were smiling and winking at him, while he was being photographed.

At the end of the improvised interview he said that I could take photograph and interview of his fellow squatters. But  it had to be under one condition; I’d have to take along some caramels! And by that he said, I don’t mean sweet caramels, I mean this and he took out of his pocket some pound coins. ‘This is the caramels they would want to see’.

We both laughed and as I was about to say I need to go to work, a man approached with a plastic bag of ‘coin’ caramels and asked José for a magazine. Very surprised and chuffed he said to the man ‘you can have two magazines for this’ and to me ‘this is real solidarity, you see, this is incredible’!

I thought the same and felt warmth in my heart having seen the good deeds humans are capable of. As I walked away I repeated to myself José’s mantra ‘humans are the only species that need money to survive’. And as long as that money is enough to sustain your living and make you happy, then that’s the best thing it can achieve.

It is amazing that the Big Issue is able to give a hand to a wide range of people and provide them with the certainty they need to plan their lives in the best way they can, and choose to.

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