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On squatting, homelessness and haircuts

When I was eighteen I moved back to London on my own, away from my parents and the small town in which I’d survived my teens. Working as an office runner for Saachi and Saachi in pre minimum wage days, the pay was terrible – all my coworkers were young guys still living with their parents. A platonic friend had let me stay in his spare room until I could find something better. That plan was shortlived – within a couple of weeks he’d acquired a new girlfriend, and she was not keen on me staying there. Refusing to give up on London so quickly, I spent a few days rotating amongst my new workmates’ sofas and then discovered by chance that there were a lot of squats out in East London, where folks were protesting the building of the M11 Link Road, so I headed over and ended up living there for a few months.

I lived in a few different places along the route, until I ended up in a big old shop which had been abandoned years before. The shopfront was huge, and above it there was a 2 floor apartment that would have originally been used by the shopkeeper. The flat looked to have been abandoned years before the shop itself, and had been reoccupied by pigeons. The squatters were taking a room each and doing the disgusting cleanup needed. I couldn’t face that though, and stayed in the shopfront, keeping my stuff out the way during the day and pulling out my bedroll at night. The original squatters were super sweet, and looking back on it, had probably seen my vulnerability as a young female, and so invited me in. We had communal meals, rotated tasks and talked about green politics, the state of the world, philosophy and history. I quit my shitty job at some point and threw myself into the campaign against the road, and against the Criminal Justice Bill which was about to become law.

To get to the shop from the rest of the protest site I would shortcut across a small park with some benches in the middle, always occupied by a few street drinkers. They felt threatening to me, though I don’t recall them ever even saying anything to me. They had unkempt shaggy hair and filthy old clothes and random bags of belongings. As I hurriedly walked past, they stank of stale sweat and alcohol. One evening I got back to the shop and, to my horror, was introduced to one of them, John, who was coming to live with us. I felt like me home was being invaded by one of the people I looked to it to escape from. The squatters had taken me in however, and though I felt really uncomfortable about this old alcoholic moving in, I didn’t feel able to say anything.

As I said above, though I really should probably have taken responsibility for cleaning out one of the rooms above, the stench and filth of years of being used as a pigeon loft had put me off. John however just got stuck in. Full of enthusiasm he carried out to the bins bags and bags of yuck, and began bleaching the surfaces, which I had to admire. I was out most days working on the campaigns, or skipping for food or whatever. John didn’t seem to notice how warey I was of him, and was friendly and welcoming when I got home.

One evening he asked me for a favour. Could I please cut his hair for him? He had scissors ready and insisted he trusted me, though I kept telling him I’d never done it before. His hair was below his shoulders, neglected from living on the streets. I had no clue where to begin, but he was kneeling on the floor expectantly, telling me he was sure I could do it. Ok, here goes!

It was actually easier than I thought it would be, and kinda fun! I quickly chopped off the ragtails, and copied what I’d seen hairdressers do, took chunks of it between my fingers following the arch of his head upwards, I shaped a close crop, leaving it a bit longer on top. It took a while, as I experimented and figured out how to not leave choppy steps, but sort of merge it all together. My fingers were covered in grease from his unwashed hair, but I figured I could wash them and they were still cleaner than his were after he’d been cleaning the upstairs rooms! Afterwards he was really thankful, and had a shower and a shave. I felt much more relaxed around him too. But for other reasons, a few weeks later I moved out as I’d found a new place.

***

A few years later I was at a demo in London. I can’t remember what about. A pleasant looking middle aged couple approached me, the man seeming really pleased to see me, but I had to admit to him that I couldn’t remember who he was. Well, of course it was John. Story was, after I’d left, he’d began a romance with the florist next door and now they were happily married. He’d spotted her and had wanted to smarten himself up, I presume hence the haircut! And then I learned even more. He had been much younger than I’d first thought, and had only been living on the streets for about 18 months. In a really short time he’d lost his job, and then his partner had left him and he’d lost his home and that was how he’d ended up out there. He was drinking because it was cold and miserable and suddenly he’d gone from having a half decent life to being outcast.

***

He thanked me, but never knew how much I had judged him. How much I’d just seen that stereotype of street drinker and hadn’t thought about how he’d ended up there, or how he might move on. The squatters who’d taken us both, and who knows how many others, were making good use of abandoned buildings, creating a home and small community that transformed John and I in different ways. For John it saved him from a brutal and probably short life on the streets. Though his eagerness to get his life together was what made most difference to him, as I can imagine others wouldn’t have found such a dramatic change. That he was relatively newly homeless must have helped – he didn’t yet have years of drinking and ill-health to contend with. I don’t know why the squatters invited John particularly in to the shop – maybe they’d already interacted enough to realise that it would be mutually beneficial. I was brought face to face with my prejudices, and also experienced communal living in a non capitalist environment. Squatting is now much more difficult due to laws brought in to target such terrible people. Did I mention yet how the building was empty, abandoned, given over to pigeons before the squatters moved in and transformed it into a home? That the only reason at John and I ended up there was due to poorly paid or insecure work?

Anyway, I didn’t want to end on a downer as to me this is a really uplifting memory. I’ve probably got some of the details wrong, but I’ll never forget the sensation of John’s greasy, matted hair as I snipped it off, nor the shock of the handsome, happy man he was just a few years later. :) Yayy for the squatters who took us both in and who put so their time and energy into creating such a great little communal home.

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