Dave "King of Squatters" Adams with the Mayor of Brighton
The "King of Squatters" competition is basically exactly the same thing as the X Factor, only you're judged on your ability to live in buildings that don't belong to you rather than your voice, teeth and capacity to gesticulate to music. This year was the competition's first, starting sometime in mid-August and finishing at the end of September. Essentially a race to see who could squat the most buildings, the aim was to highlight how empty commercial property can be used to house rough sleepers.
The race was conceived last year, but Dave Adams - founder of the competition and self-proclaimed "King of Squatters" - had a bit of trouble getting it started. This year, everything fell into place; groups from Bristol, Cardiff, London, Brighton and Manchester got together and decided to put the plan into action.
Dave managed to squat seven buildings before the competition was up, though eventually lost to the Bristol team. However, defeat hasn't put him off; he plans to hold the "King of Squatters" challenge again next year, and for now is focusing on helping others find a home.
I recently visited Dave at his latest squat, a comfortable set-up in the centre of Brighton that used to be an art gallery before it was abandoned.
There was emulsion smeared on the windows to stop people from peering in, and a section 144 notice - telling whoever read it that the law against squatting residential buildings doesn't apply to commercial property - was stuck to the front doors. The residents were staying in the basement because the windows above them could be seen into from the library upstairs.
"I think we spooked a few of the people in the library when we first moved in", said Dave. "Because the windows are blacked out, they haven't got a clue about the numbers down here."
A man relaxing in Dave's Brighton squat
When police or bailiffs turned up, Dave would tell them that there were 25 people living inside. "I say half the people are ex-forces," he admitted. "They're more sympathetic when they hear that."
Despite his nifty tactics, legal action was looming when I visited, as the council want to take back possession of the building. Luckily, Dave had a backup plan - a four-floor office block close by. He couldn't tell me exactly where, but he said there was one person already there, holding the fort in case someone else tried to take the building - likely, considering Brighton has high levels of homelessness, with demand for affordable homes far exceeding supply.
It's this exact point that the contest is trying to highlight. According to one council report, the number of people in the city registering as homeless on a yearly basis is "higher than both the national and regional average", and amid funding cuts to shelters and public services, the city is floundering in its response.
Dave (left), Chris (second from right) and Richard (right) talk to the Mayor of Brighton
The sheer number of homeless people in Brighton is down to several factors. According to a council spokesperson I talked to, the seaside city has a "bright lights, big city appeal" that people often end up falling victim to. "We attract a lot of people that either don't find a place or can't afford somewhere to live because housing is hugely expensive," he said.
It's also a city known for its liberal views, so many believe residents will be nicer to rough sleepers than others throughout the UK. And in a practical sense, it's relatively warm compared to other British towns and cities. Mind you, it is still a British city, meaning it's also still horribly cold for those sleeping on the streets.
On the 3rd of October, Dave and 20 of his homeless friends held a protest outside Brighton town hall. They were demanding better care for the homeless and ended up having a conversation with the mayor. Chris, a homeless guy who I spoke to at the protest, was happy that someone was trying to raise awareness of their situation. "The council needs to put things into place so that people have somewhere to stay. They need to stop wasting time," he told me.
When I asked the council if it had considered working with squatters, a spokesperson told me: "Historically, some squatters have done considerable damage to council property, which means that more money has to be spent to bring them up to a state where you can actually rent them."
Dave maintains that he doesn't damage property. "We usually leave a place cleaner than when we moved in," he told me.
A section 144 notice on the window of Dave's Brighton squat
While Dave might have support for his competition, not everyone's happy about the way he's raising awareness. An ex-squatter named Toby, who worked on a squat project in 2012 called the "autonomous homeless shelter", told me that his friends thought the scheme was "a bit stupid, because buildings can really only be squatted once". There's a limited stock of empty commercial property, and even less that's in a liveable state. Toby said his friends were annoyed Dave was promoting "the idea that you should squat as many buildings as possible".
"You're simply using up the stock", he said.
There are no real politics behind the "King of Squatters" competition, other than Dave's desire to house rough sleepers in squats. That said, Dave identifies as an anarchist - something that's pissed off some of Brighton's anarcho-squats, who reckon that having a self-proclaimed "King" is anathema to their egalitarian politics. Two squatters who didn't want to be named told me that they thought the whole thing was a publicity stunt with no political basis. And they made a fair point, no matter how misguided: demanding that the council get involved kind of clashes with the entire philosophy of squatting.
When I mentioned this to Toby, he eased up on his criticism. "I think it's commendable that he's at least trying to do something, because, for fuck's sake, something has to be done," he said. "The situation in Brighton is at crisis level. I can't stress that enough. People are dying, quite regularly, of very preventable things."