By Daddy LongShanks
By the time Nosebleed squat started, I’d been houseless for almost two years and considered myself something of a pro-squatter. The upside of squatting is zero dollars rent and total freedom to spend your days as you please, free of indentured servitude to the corporate ogre; the downside is zero stability, frequent unplanned moves and occasional loss of possessions up to and including all of them. The average life-span of a squat in San Francisco, according to my Homes Not Jails cohorts, is three weeks; my own experience more or less confirms that statistic. Moving more than once a month adds up to plenty of stress on its own, but squatters have more to deal with: periodic confrontations with angry property owners, and police, who invariably take the gentry’s side against their ragtag, would-be disseisors.
The first night I stayed there, we agreed to set the roster at five, not to accept any more members (other than overnight guests), and set some loose house rules. (They can only be loose in a household of anarchist cat people.) After lone-wolfing it for so long, I was happy to be part of a group again, building a house with others outside the capitalism box. Safety in numbers, the synergy of human interactions, personality dynamics I’d missed (a little). We all had our failings and foibles and eccentricities, but no one was judging, or hiding in shame. We were all fuck-ups of one kind or another and that was okay. It was some kind of wonderful.
We discussed intelligence gathered so far on the property, over dinner and drinks in the kitchen. From the street, Nosebleed wasn’t much to look at, but inside the house was full of retro charm. What it lacked in size it made up with a cozy, finished basement and a fenced backyard with garden. It was an inheritance property. The owners appeared to live in the East Bay. They had major renovations planned that would involve extensive construction, as evidenced by blueprints and other Department of Building Inspection documents we’d intercepted. This dampened any hopes for a long-term tenancy, though not completely: we’d all seen enough construction projects stall for long periods, sometimes indefinitely, for reasons one could only guess: owner moves or sells the property, dies, runs out of money; plans delayed or derailed by permits, Planning Department bureaucracy, complaints from other homeowners, etc. Though hope was further eroded by the fact that The Great Recession was itself receding by this point (early 2013), and construction was starting to pick up again all over the place.
Water and power, at minimum, are considered necessary by self-respecting squatters for decent indoor living. In this respect, Nosebleed was a peach, boasting not only these baseline amenities but also a gas stove and furnace, working washer and dryer, and even hot running water — a rare luxury indeed! That first night, I washed a load of clothes and went to bed earlier than the others, setting up my tent in the basement. Indoor camping! I would have camped outside, but we wanted to maintain a low profile.
To access the basement, one had to go outside. When I did so, I noticed that our clamoring voices were clearly audible to the next-door neighbors, who struck me as the sort of married couple who wake up early and pack their kids off to school before leaving for work themselves. At that very moment, I could hear talking, loud as day, about strategies for dealing with cops if they showed up, and how we should fabricate and memorize a story so as not to be taken off guard or caught in a lie if owners or others came calling.
I brought this up the next night, my second in the house. Again we stood in the kitchen eating dinner, by dint of no furniture so far. “You guys, we’ve gotta talk quieter,” I exhorted them. The response seemed to be a collective shrug. Not wanting to come off as a fussbudget, I didn’t press the issue. After dinner, I took a hot shower, something I’d anticipated with relish all day. When I emerged a half hour later, steamy and well-scrubbed, I was in congenial spirits, starting to really look forward to this little house adventure and already feeling fondness for my surrogate squatter family. Wicked sugarplums were dancing in my head, of how cool and fun this house could be. Maybe we would make it so cool that the owners, when they got wind of our unauthorized tenancy, wouldn’t even mind! The permission squat of my dreams come true!
But the next day the squat blew up. The owner showed up, found one of us and threatened to call the police. He ran off with a few of his belongings and the rest of us lost everything we had left in the house. We understood. I think we’d all been through our share of squat busts by that point. Nonetheless, I was disappointed. It was a nice house, and we were a fun group. It was too bad the experiment never got to play out. That night, I walked by the house and saw it boarded up, and looked over the fence into the dark, desolate garden we’d hoped to cultivate. That squat, lasting only two days, came to symbolize for me the wasted potential and brusquely shattered daydreams of those attempting to build a better world at this early and subliminal stage of human enlightenment.
When I became homeless and hit the street for the first time in my adult life in San Francisco in mid-2011, I had no conception of how to live outside the prescribed course of mainstream capitalist society, and thought my life was ending. Thanks to Occupy SF, Homes Not Jails, and Noisebridge (as it was then), I discovered another life outside the mainstream that offered total freedom at the heavy cost of constant struggle, insecurity and instability. Unfortunately, I became addicted to crystal meth, which took me away from the larger activist community I’d begun to be involved with. Eventually, after brushes with the law and worsening circumstances, I emerged with a heightened spiritual sense and consciousness level — there is something to be said for the view that suffering leads to enlightenment, I’m afraid! I was determined to plug back into the grassroots communities and make up for lost time as best I could. I still sleep in abandoned houses and explore, but now I don’t need heavy drugs to do so.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org