living for free
‘Skipaholic’ Katharine Hibbert in her London squat surrounded by some of the stuff she got for free. Photograph: David Levene
I was sitting in a park, feeling sick. I’d left my job, packed my possessions away and given up my rented flat. My plan had been to find a squat and some food dumped by a shop or a cafe to eat, and to see how long I could survive without spending money, living off what would otherwise go to waste. Now I just wanted to go home. But it was too late.
All I possessed was a couple of changes of clothes, a sleeping bag and a wash kit. My pockets were empty. There was a £20 note in my bag but that was the only money I had.
I was 26, and on paper my life had been pretty good. I had a job as a journalist and shared a flat with my sister. I had friends, and a lovely boyfriend. But life had become tedious. I took it all for granted – my clothes, my record collection, my theatre tickets. Call it a quarter-life crisis or a failure to count my blessings, but I missed the enthusiasm and idealism I’d once felt.
I felt guilty about my lifestyle, too: I disliked huge supermarkets, but off I went every week to stock up; I worried about the impact of flying, but I liked holidays and eating air-freighted grapes all year round; I suspected that the disposable fashion on the high streets was produced in sweatshops, but owned piles of clothes bought on a whim.
Then the banks collapsed. I was made redundant and my landlord phoned to say he was putting the rent up. I’d had enough.
A couple of years before, I’d met people who claimed to live on next to nothing in Britain’s cities. They knew where to find free food, where to scavenge for clothes and household goods and how to get inside abandoned buildings and live in them for free. When my old life fell apart, I decided to join them. I would stop spending for a year. I wouldn’t take anything that wouldn’t otherwise go to waste, and I wouldn’t steal or beg. I wouldn’t claim benefits, and I wouldn’t accept favours from friends that I couldn’t repay.
That was the plan; this was the reality. I had tramped for miles, but hadn’t seen anywhere I could stay that night. I was hungry, and although I knew there was a hidden army of scavengers out there, I had no idea how to find them.
Towards the end of that first day, I called in at London’s Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) to look at the noticeboard where messages offer spaces in squats. There were none. Then a squatter who had called for advice about an eviction notice asked me what I was up to. “Looking for a place to stay,” I replied. He took pity on me, and so I spent my first night in a disused nursing home, occupied by a dozen squatters. The welcome wasn’t warm – some of the others thought I shouldn’t have been invited – but I was shown an empty room. The windows were boarded up and the only light was from a neon tube in the ceiling, but there was a bed. I shoved two 5kg bags of coal up against the bedroom door: it wasn’t going to stop anyone from coming in but at least I’d hear them. That night, adrenalin kept me awake and jumpy.
I drifted around, tired, lonely and tearful, for more than a week after that. I knew I had to find a new place before the grumbles about my presence in the squat got any louder, but I couldn’t think of anything to do. Then I got a text: an acquaintance of an acquaintance, Chris, had space in his squat – a Victorian house left empty for more than a year by the Ministry of Justice, and inhabited by him and three other men in their twenties. They showed me the ropes and made sure I understood the law on squatting. Trespassing isn’t a crime in England and Wales, so squatters aren’t breaking the law simply by being in someone else’s property. If squatters displace someone from their home, they can be arrested straight away; but if a building is disused, once it is squatted it counts as a home – the only way to evict them is through the civil courts. The process can take as little as a week, so Chris and his housemates had searched for a building disused for a long time, in the hopes that the owner wouldn’t bother to initiate proceedings too speedily. Chris also introduced me to people from nearby squats who had banded together into a support network, sharing news, skills and tools, and helping each other in emergencies.
The court papers to evict us arrived after I had lived at Chris’s house for just over a month. We tried to negotiate permission to stay until the building was needed, but we were out of luck. Finding another long-term empty building wasn’t too difficult – around 1.5% of houses in England and Wales have been empty for more than six months. But I wasn’t used to the risks involved or the discomfort and fear of the first weeks in a new building. Some of the others seemed to thrive on the adrenaline, but I spent those first weeks, mostly, scared. I never learned to enjoy moving squats, but I moved six times in my first year, and grew more businesslike about choosing a new building, and watching the bailiffs throw the things I couldn’t carry into a skip.
Furnishing a new squat was easy, though. Going for a walk turned into going “skipping”. In any residential street, I’d pass houses that had been having a clearout. Every day would bring some minor triumph. A duvet, good as new! A little radio! A mock crocodile-skin fifties-style suitcase! I became very acquisitive. When I saw something which might one day prove useful, I grabbed it. A hardboiled egg slicer and a melon baller were added to our kitchen drawer, and a squeaky dog toy was strapped onto my (skipped) bike in place of a bell. I became a skipaholic.
I quickly learned new skills, too – basic plumbing, how to fix a leaky roof, how to rewire a fuse box. We found bath tubs in skips, built frames for them with waste wood and plumbed them in with old pipes. Broken windows were patched with scraps of colourful Perspex. A skipped radiator became a draining board for a sink made from a scavenged baby bath. It looked scruffy, but we had done it ourselves, and the once-neglected houses felt like homes.
At first, finding food was time-consuming and unpleasant. I’d have to open several bags of real rubbish – coffee grounds, used dishcloths – before finding anything worth having. And although I always found unsoiled goods sooner or later I avoided looking up in case I caught the eye of passersby and saw contempt there.
Over time, I opened bags of bona fide rubbish far less often. I learned when cafes and shops threw out food and could adjust my foraging route according to what I fancied eating. I learned that bags containing food weigh more than those full of empty cups and boxes, and that the more upmarket the supermarket, the more they throw away. Soon I was coming home weighed down with butternut squash soup, salmon fishcakes or ready-to-roast chickens, as well as dried apricots, breakfast cereal, bread sticks or boiled sweets. For fruit and veg, I would visit New Covent Garden, the wholesalers’ market. The bins were surrounded by fresh produce, most of it perfect to be eaten that day or the next – no good for retailers but fine for us. I feasted on melons and mangoes, blueberries and raspberries, cherries and ripe avocados.
Legally, raiding bins is a grey area. The rubbish still belongs either to the shop that owns it or the company that’s due to collect it – taking it is “theft by finding”. But the police left us alone.
In my first two months as a squatter and a scavenger I spent 54p – less than a penny a day. Ten pence had gone on a sheet of photocopying and the other 44p had bought me a KitKat at my lowest ebb in the first week. It was extraordinary how quickly it had become routine to get through a day without cash. I’d slept on a mattress every night and hadn’t had to go more than two days without a wash. Before I’d set out, I’d been worried I’d have to live with chaotic or drug-addicted housemates. I’d asked my boyfriend to expect a text from me every evening to tell him I was OK, so that he would raise the alarm if something went wrong. But, after the first couple of nights, I felt silly writing a message. Even when I was low and lonely, that I was safe went without saying.
However, as time went on I realised that I would need some small source of income. I’d relied on my squatmates’ cooking oil and loo rolls and was getting to the end of my shower gel. Although my mobile phone contract cost only £10 a month, I hadn’t paid last month’s bill.
Then it struck me: if I could feed, clothe and house myself from other people’s rubbish, perhaps I could also earn a few quid from it, too. I found a paper shredder, still in its box and sold it on Gumtree for £15. I found a television next, and got £30 for it. In one week I had converted rubbish into £45.
This was more than enough – the longer I went without buying things, the fewer things I wanted. Four months after I left my job and flat, it was my birthday. Friends and family asked what I wanted. I struggled to think of anything. There were things I missed – an electric toothbrush, or some nicer bed linen. But having to leave squats quickly, taking only what one could carry, had highlighted the pointlessness of accumulating possessions. My acquisitiveness had dropped away. I didn’t want to clog myself up with the gifts people wanted to give me.
I was beginning to feel faint boredom, though. So I asked my mum for cinema tickets. My dad paid the inexpensive training dues for my Sunday League football team. My sisters gave me a tiny MP3 player and some albums to play on it. My boyfriend took me to the theatre.
But as the weeks wore on, the tedium worsened. Life had got too easy. I didn’t want to go back to the job from which I’d been made redundant, but I missed working. Work had filled up my time and given me a sense of purpose.
I started borrowing philosophy books from the library. I Freecycled wool, borrowed knitting patterns and started working out how to make things. I persuaded a friend to give me chess lessons. And I started to work again, but not for money. I helped create a community garden on some wasteground. I cooked with the East London Food Not Bombs group, who scavenge the ingredients for meals then serve them up free. And when one of the volunteers in the ASS office mentioned that the collective was looking for more members, I volunteered. I went back to setting an alarm clock, and was happier.
I had set out to live for free for 12 months, but when my time was up I had no desire to stop. The flat I lived in was comfortable, and my flatmates and I had been in it for months with no threat of eviction. Finding food was no hassle. I slept as much as I liked, read as much as I liked and went out, walking in the park or visiting galleries. My parents had stopped worrying about me.
Sometimes a text alert would come from the squat networks, reminding me that difficulty – an unexpected eviction or hassle from police – was far closer than it would have been if I were living more conventionally. But life usually continued without panic and alarm. I still had barely any money, just a few pounds from selling scavenged junk, but it wasn’t a source of anxiety any more. Living on what others discard had become a habit. I totted up how much it had cost me and it averaged at less than a pound a day.
I had rarely felt this healthy and calm, and was sleeping properly and eating well. I still had worries but I was less stressed than I had been when I was earning: I had everything I needed, and I had people around me who would help me if things went wrong.
But the circumstances that made it possible for me to live this way also made me angry. Even if the businesses and homeowners couldn’t reduce the amount of waste, they didn’t have to dispose of their surplus as rubbish. FareShare, the food redistribution charity, say they could redistribute 15 times more surplus food than they currently do. Short-life housing schemes have waiting lists hundreds of names long.
But instead of exploring such schemes, many organisations put huge effort into stopping people who want their rubbish from taking it. Bins are locked. Flats and houses are boarded up or deliberately rendered uninhabitable. Anyone who tries to move in can expect to be evicted, only for the building to remain empty. All but one of the squats I was evicted from is still disused by their owners.
Several skipping spots that were reliable sources of meals have been sabotaged – a large branch of EAT, for example, used to throw away sacks of sandwiches, wraps, salads, yoghurts and fruit every day. It still does, but now the shop assistants open every packet before putting it in the bag, emptying yoghurt over salads and sandwiches to make them inedible. At New Covent Garden, skippers have been handed fliers carrying the Metropolitan police’s logo telling them that taking waste would be considered theft.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Tax on landfill could be increased to encourage reusing or recycling waste. The Empty Homes Agency has a raft of suggestions for changes to the tax system that would make it more expensive to leave houses empty for long periods.
Squatting and scavenging could be recognised as part of the solution, too. Squatting has a long history in England – from the 17th-century Diggers to the squatting communities of the 1960s and 1970s, which gave rise to many of today’s housing associations. And yet as a scavenger and squatter in England today, I had been treated as a pest to be kept out with anti-climb paint and security guards, a social pariah. Why? In Barcelona, the skipping capital of Europe, people can be seen carrying crooked sticks to rescue bags from the communal skips that are on every street corner. No one thinks it odd. In the roads into Washington people queue up at rush hour, waiting for cars to pull over. It’s hitchhiking for commuters, known as slugging, a practice that started in the 1970s in response to the introduction of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. Local authorities here could facilitate something similar. Even signs for hitching spots like those in Holland might help.
As for me, I am still in my little squatted flat. I am more optimistic today than I was when I walked away from my old life. The world is not the hostile, dangerous place I imagined, and I feel a greater sense of its possibilities. I get by, not just because of empty houses, wasted food and discarded consumer goods, but because of the people I rely on and who rely on me, strangers and friends.
Extracted from Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society by Katharine Hibbert, published by Ebury Press on 14 January at £11.99. To order a copy for £10.99 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846