Squatters: Living alternatively and redefining freedom

This was the lead story published in The Hullabaloo on January 22, 2011.

Some names have been kept anonymous to protect sources, as squatting is an illegal practice.

Aside from the occasional police visit and pooping in a bucket, Laura, a 23-year-old Tulane alumna, is living the dream.

Squatting in an abandoned house in the Eighth Ward, Laura and her four roommates spend their free time playing music or creating art, as well as foraging for usable metal, tires, tools and furniture in New Orleans junkyards to fix up their newfound home.

“It’s like constant camping,” Laura said.

“Most people may not associate freedom with forgoing electricity and running water, but that is exactly how Laura’s daily life makes her feel — free.

“It’s fun getting on without all the luxuries other people think they need,” Laura said, smiling. “Every day is an adventure, and everyone here is awesome. They are all the most thoughtful, generous and life-embracing people I’ve ever met.”

But a few blocks away, an empty lot with tall, singed grass bears a stark reminder of the dangers of living this way: A tragic fire killed eight squatters — all between 17 and 23 years old — in an abandoned warehouse on Dec. 28, while they were burned trash to keep warm amid freezing temperatures.

The fire thrust the largely underground world of New Orleans squatters into the spotlight, bringing new media and police attention to the network of dwellers in abandoned buildings.

In a Dec. 29 press conference, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the fire was a “terrible tragedy” and a “seemingly senseless event,” according to The Times-Picayune. At the conference, Landrieu and other city officials announced efforts to ramp up vagrancy enforcement, saying that abandoned buildings are unsafe and that people living inside should go to homeless shelters instead.

While there are squatters in every city, New Orleans has developed an extensive network of alternative dwellers — a proper “squat-aucracy,” as its members refer to it — consisting of hundreds of young squatters. Some are travelers, while some are New Orleanians. They help each other out with various needs, such as fixing bikes, gardening and construction.

“We’re all a community, but we’re also like family,” Laura said.

Many squatters were attracted to New Orleans because of the abundance of abandoned properties left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the city’s artistic and musical culture.

Landrieu has repeatedly announced his goals to “fight blight” in the city, promising to demolish 10,000 blighted homes during the next three years. But while many homeowners cannot afford the time or money to fix up their blighted properties to meet the city’s standards, squatters work hard to restore the buildings and improve their appearances.

“They just kinda showed up one day, but they’re cool,” said one of Laura’s neighbors, who asked not to be identified. “They’re fixing up the house more than the owner ever did, that’s for sure.”

Compared to the rest of the neighborhood, Laura’s house — with its fresh coat of paint and tamed grass — shows very few signs of blight. They moved in only a few months ago.

“We’re making this place part of the community,” said Blackhands, 21, one of Laura’s roommates. He has been traveling and squatting for the past four years.

Chief among the reasons people choose to squat are environmental sustainability and waste reduction. In a distinct rejection of today’s disposable consumer culture, everything inside Laura’s house — including the house itself — has been either created or recycled.

“We’re using something that’s already good and making it better, when other people would just throw it away or demolish it,” Blackhands said.

Topher, 29, studied environmental science in college before coming to New Orleans after Katrina to remove trees. He now lives out of his truck, which runs on vegetable oil.

“Money’s not an issue at all,” Topher said. “In fact, the tree removal business is quite lucrative. It’s a choice. It’s how I’m comfortable. My friends ask, ‘Do you want to sleep on the couch?’ And I’m like, ‘Why would I want to sleep on your couch when I’ve got my truck?’ It’s my home.”

“Land ownership is a false sense of security, kind of like a religion,” Topher said. “Humans are always looking for security, but it’s really wasteful and unnecessary. I see these giant houses, and I think they’re gross. They’re monstrosities.”

While Topher and Blackhands labored outside to take down a massive tree threatening the roof, Laura gave a tour of the house.

“This is the little kitchen we’ve set up,” Laura said, gesturing to the corner of a large room where a camping stove attached to a Blue Rhino gas tank.

In the kitchen stood a large shelf sub-divided into eight segments, each labeled with the housemates’ names, some containing food or a flashlight or duct tape, while others are empty.

“We don’t actually adhere to those labels though,” Laura said. “We pretty much share everything with each other.”

While it’s unusual, Laura is not the only Tulane graduate squatting in New Orleans. She also knows of a practicing doctor who has been squatting since he attended Tulane Medical School.

“I guess I’m not really using my degree,” Laura said, laughing. “Well, kinda actually. I majored in sociology and environmental science.”


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