I had always envisioned myself going to college. I led a very typical and mediocre life when I was nearing adulthood. I had no thoughts of what life could present for me besides a casual interest in earning a degree. Learning had always been my objective, but even at a young age, I knew that I would be forced me into taking student loans, with tuition at local state and city colleges consistently increasing. And then I would be forced into working my way out of debt. I wanted freedom, and buying a ticket into the standard education system did not seem like a right path.
So I joined Occupy. I knew I would find many other young people that could relate to my economic challenges at gatherings and general assemblies. Walking through the camp my first time, I realized the education system was only the beginning of the problem. I met many adults who were stuck and trapped in the housing crunch. Once I got past graduation, I would be forced to deal with the worries of getting through the housing system while still trying to maintain my freedom. Occupiers explained that they occupied because they could no longer afford the debt slavery created by the banks.
Grown adults who had attempted to live inside the system were now waking up to the housing crash. They had been scammed, used, and deceived. Paying off homes was no longer an option with the limited amount of money circulating its way back to the working class. The only option that had been seen most clearly was to fight back and demonstrate to big banks that homebuyers would not allow their homes to be confiscated by the banks.
As I learned in the Occupy camp, starting in the 1990’s, new policies were created to increase home ownership. Unfortunately, lenders found loopholes in order to make a wide margin of profit. The lenders sold faulty mortgages to both new buyers and those who already owned their home. These mortgages contained interests that rapidly increased to the point where home buyers could not pay the bills on time. Additionally, aggressive marketing tactics were used to convince people to take out loans on the value of their homes. With massive debt taking over many households, foreclosure started to sweep across the country. Foreclosures have caused families and individuals to lose their homes, and even forced some into becoming homeless.
In order to stop the foreclosures in San Francisco, bands of Occupiers and other protestors would meet at City Hall. Bullhorns, chants, and drums were used to make noise in order to hinder the foreclosure of a house. Multiple homes were saved through this process, but soon I learned of a way to get a home without the debt, squatting.
A squatter, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, “is a person who unlawfully occupies an uninhabited building or unused land”.i Squatting can be a very difficult and time-consuming practice. The first step is to find an abandoned building. Once the building has been scouted for signs of occupancy, the squatters must keep a very close eye on an activity in the building. Many even tape a section of the front door in order to see if it has been broken. A breakage in the tape is probable cause that the building already has residents. If the tape doesn't break over a month or so, the squatter may assume that no one resides in the house.
Lock boxes, which are usually found on properties that are being sold by realtors, must be found and grabbed. Once the lock box is hit and broken with a sledgehammer, the key to the house will be accessible, allowing the squatter with more access to move in. Though the squatter has a residence to use, the process of moving in is still not over. The person or persons involved must be extremely discreet and meticulous about light, noise, and entering and exiting the building so that neighbors or cops are unaware of their presence.
Those are all the basics to establishing a squat. What follows the move-in phase of squatting is truly the most difficult part: possible legal battles loom. In order to get protection, the squatter gets any type of mail with the squat’s address on it. Water, gas, phone, internet, and other types of utility bills are generally preferred. In case of an altercation with police, it provides more evidence that the squatter is not trespassing. Owners will sometimes never complain about the squatters, annd many squats are actually foreclosed properties, now owned by the banks that sold the risky mortgages. After five years, the squatter can then legally file to own the home through adverse possessionii.
Food is common hardship, among others, in the squatting community. While some squatters do have low wage jobs that can cover basic necessities, others find creative ways of foraging food like dumpster diving. Squatters can sometimes find ways to turn on the water and electricity in the squat rather than paying for it.
In 2011, the San Francisco Examiner counted a population of over 6,000 people in San Franciscoiii. In that same year, there were over 30,000 empty homes in San Francisco, which would provide more than enough housing for all of the homelessiv. In Occupy, we had learned how to take pride and care in the community through mutual aid and training others in how to squat. Every Tuesday at 8pm, Occupiers would meet at South Van Ness for a Home Not Jails meeting. Homes Not Jails provides temporary housing and squatting skillsharing. With the increasing involvement of Occupy with the squatting community, new squats were blooming across the city, housing people who had been kicked off the streets by police enforcement.
Many of them moved into a squat in the Oceanside district close to City College of San Francisco. The San Francisco Commune, or SFC for short, had been previously used as a drug house. By the time the new occupants had started to move in, needles, dirt, and other trash had to be cleaned out. The first time I stepped foot inside of the SFC, it was not what I would have pictured a squat to look like. Coming from a middle-working class background, I expected squats to be intimidating and filled with distasteful and scandalous people. But instead, the SFC was in the process of being renovated by the squatters in hopes of making it a welcoming and safe home for those in need.
The San Francisco Commune provided me with an in-depth and tangible experience with squatting as an alternative housing situation. I had taken a homeless and pregnant friend of mine to the SFC. Her options were limited, and the SFC was her first choice for housing herself while pregnant. I knew she would at least have a the benefit of being in doors while carrying her child.
I inquired more about squatting from friends who lived there, and began to observe the framework of squatting. I saw squatting at its raw core: search groups scouting possible open houses, breaking lock boxes that held keys, and seeing certain stresses such as cops and the neighborhood threaten the squat. I had been fascinated with this entirely different reality from the one I was raised in. I had been an average American life on the path of going to school and working a retail job, but I took a sharp turn away from that idea when I became involved with the SFC.
The room where we all slept was broken up into personal spaces, which were marked by sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, and backpacks. This was the common area, where most socialized, slept, ate, listened to music, and smoked. One day when roughly fifteen people were lounging around in the common area, someone remarked that police were outside talking to one of the roommates who had exited the building. Hearts were pounding, sweat was misting out of pores, and all eyes where like deer in headlights. All noise had become deafened silence to protect our sacred home space. The police had luckily left, but that was the first major police encounter, meaning everyone had to be extremely discreet with furture movement. We grasped how fortunate we were to still have the home that night. Though the police encounter was alarming, there were more concerning issues inside the SFC.
While the SFC had revolutionary and conscious souls, personalities amongst the roommates became chaotic, power hungry, and disfigured. At one point, up to twenty people lived in the SFC. With so many individuals cooped up in a relatively small space, tensions grew. Certain members would become frustrated sometimes even physically threatening to others because of expectations not met. Parties thrown until five in the morning and piles of dirty dishes aggravated many who lived at the SFC.
The power structure was unbalanced leading to a split within the group. Because of this, the SFC could not function at a fundamental level. The emotional energy surrounding the house was unhealthy and a poor living condition. This proved how significant and horrific the housing crisis had been, because in a city that can provide housing to each person on the street, swarms of people had to be subjected serious daily emotional challenges just to have an indoor space to sleep.
Though the San Francisco Commune had been open for over a year, the San Francisco Police Department eventually raided the SFC, leaving about twenty people without a home and minimal of time to gather belongings. Even though the group dynamic was rocky and tense, the SFC provided many networking and relationship building opportunities. Love interests blossomed, art and chants filled the walls, and a sustainable garden was being built in the backyard. There were definitely struggles among individuals at the SFC, but the space equipped us to plan events and marches and maintained housing for those who needed it.
Had I not become a squatter at the SFC, I would have simply entered college racking up debt with student loans, with little understanding of the world that awaited me upon graduation. The matrix of debt slavery would have formed before I even got a handle on its implications for my life. But instead, I learned. I learned about squatting, cooking, community, and from other people's experiences. I gained a soul-grasping understanding of love from my fellow squatters, even during the most chaotic of times. I climbed into a dumpster at Trader Joe’s so the house could have enough food. I had neighbors smile at me with a sense of respect because they would never expect this from a “privileged” girl. But I tried, and I did. And these things you can't and won't learn in college. It's the joy of getting out of my comfort zone that makes me miss the San Francisco Commune.
Even with the SFC no longer housing the homeless, many of the occupiers at the SFC are still creating alternative solutions out of the rubble of the depressed economy and housing crisis. The majority are still squatting and attending Homes Not Jails meetings. Others are demonstrating a working exchange system based on trading skills, not money.
Regardless of ones economic status, anyone can be faced with the reality of homelessness. People of all economic classes can help build a better way of living and economy that benefits all of the community. We all have the power to make a change and make housing available to everyone.
iii Bay City News. "San Francisco’s Homeless Count Reveals Drop in Chronic Homelessness." Sfexaminer.com. SF Examiner, 19 May 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2013.
iv Torres, Blanca. "San Francisco Has Highest Percent of Vacant Homes in the Bay Area." – San Francisco Business Times. San Francisco Business Times, 25 May 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.