The Diary Of A Squat

When the Homeless Reclaimed a Building

Bharat Dogra

This is about a great book that has almost never been published; or rather one should say that has never been published properly. Well, it is about a diary written by a ‘practical idealist’ Jean Delarue who was one among the several homeless people who occupied a building in London during 1989-90 for several months.

Jean Delarue wrote a diary during most of the days he stayed there. It was difficult to find a regular publisher for this and so this was published as a typescript by Peace-print of the Brotherhood Church, Yorks, under the title ‘No. 1 Clapham Road—the diary of a squat’. This book mentions in the very beginning—‘All profits will be given to the Manna Centre for the Homeless’. Further it is stated—Free for prisoners and the homeless.

If you are not already interested adequately in the book, then let me give you an additional information that will definitely make you interested and even excited about the book—the author’s name given in this book Jean Delarue is only an assumed name which under the circumstances the squatter-author had to adopt. Readers would identify more easily with the real author—none other than Prof Jean Dreze. It is better to identify him here, for the style of the diary-writing is so different from the scholarly books people normally associate with the world renowned development economist, also often called the ‘people’s economist’, that the reader may find it otherwise very difficult to identify Jean Delarue and Jean Dreze as the same author.

This was written around the time Jean had finished a teaching assignment in London and was preparing to come to India. Towards the end of 1988 a number of friends who were united by their involvement in peace actions started discussing the idea of helping the homeless of London to ‘reclaim’ a large empty building. The idea was that they would occupy some fairly conspicuous building, throw it open to the homeless and help them to organise the squat along community lines. “There would be banners and posters all over the place, free soup, noisy meetings, press visits, music, workshops, and an open dialogue…” Sooner or later people would be evicted to go back to the street, but some objectives would meanwhile be achieved hopefully. As the author says of the planning stage, “we saw this action both as a practical way of helping homeless people to create a (temporary) home of their own, and as a symbolic protest against their social extermination”, with perhaps more emphasis being on the second aspect.

There was apprehension initially that the reclaiming effort may last only a few days or at the most a few weeks, but actually it could continue for several months although the number of occupants would rise and fall from time to time depending on several factors.

Jean himself was among the first group of squatters to reclaim the building but after living for a month or two he had to leave and then returned after a gap of about four months or so in August 1989. It was then that he started writing this diary which continued for about three months or so.

This diary gives a very honest account of this effort of the homeless people—good and bad, beautiful and ugly all aspects can be seen here. There is no effort to romanticise the often difficult situations, or the people involved in them, in fact the quotes are often very raw. Yet there are many aspects of solidarity and aspirations of homeless people which stand out in this diary.

The writer of the diary is particularly involved with exploring the possibilities of community life; he is happy when he sees signs of this and sad when these appear to be losing out.

This concern reminded me of my own reporting on the homeless people in some parts of India but particularly in Delhi where I found that among several homeless people community life exists even in the street. Several of them who are migrants from the same cluster of distant villages would take care to live together and in fact even avoid going to shelters as long as they could stay together on streets and roads with their rickshaws, handcarts or other means of livelihood.

This book is full of rare observations of understanding homeless people made by a learned and sympathetic scholar who was living with them for several months like any other squatter and sharing all their difficulties, problems and work. Now that the number of homeless and ‘almost homeless’ people is increasing even in several western countries including the USA and UK it will be really useful to publish this valuable diary in a more regular way so that it can reach many more readers. What I would like to suggest is that the writer should add one comprehensive chapter on the situation of homeless persons today to add to the value and appeal of the book. One hopes that people can see such a book very soon.

[The reviewer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. He was earlier Board Member and for some time the Chairperson of a leading program of homeless persons in India. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.]

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Vol 56, No. 37, Mar 10 - 16, 2024