Impoverished, mentally ill and grappling with substance abuse, many people failed by mainstream society have made a home on Britain's canals. Unfortunately, these canals also run alongside some of Britain's most profitable real estate, and depressed alcoholics on barges tend to drive down the prices of nearby property – so a consortium of private landowners, local councils and a body called the Canal and River Trust (CRT) is allegedly forcing them off the water.
CRT mooring rings can cost upwards of £500 a month, even before the cost of a barge is taken into account. Vulnerable boaters therefore tend to be "continuous cruisers", forced to spend their lives on the move just like Travellers on land. If they stay in one place for more than a fortnight (to receive medical attention, to work, to send their children to school), the CRT can fine them, seize their boat or kick them off the water.
Marcus Trower is a caseworker helping vulnerable boaters battle the CRT. As we chat, he dishes out free platefuls of curry to other members of the tight-knit barge community around Tottenham Hale. "I've seen grown men in tears because of the stress," he says. "You can lose your home, and not even be told what you've done wrong."
When he contracted Lyme Disease, boater Phil says he was "in excruciating agony, peeing black, in a life-threatening situation". But an enforcement officer told Phil he'd googled the disease, that he didn't think it was serious and that Phil should move his boat immediately.
With help from Marcus, Phil was able to get a doctor's note and fend off the CRT. Others were not so lucky. When ageing boater Sean contacted Marcus, he was struggling with severe back pain and mental health problems. "He couldn't even talk on the phone, he was in so much pain," Marcus says. "But they kept on moving him. He thought he'd done enough but they kept on moving him." Apparently trying to handle a lock alone as he made another journey across London, Sean fell into the water and drowned. Marcus says the most vulnerable bargees, living crammed on boats without electricity or running water, are often made homeless before he has a chance to help them.
In response, CRT spokesperson Joe Coggins says he can't speak about individual cases, but points out that "what we're trying to do [with] our new approach is to work much more closely with boaters. If they do have problems we can discuss it with them. If they do have medical emergencies or engine problems we let them stay longer; we made over 1,000 adjustments for people in the last year [...] We do take into account their individual circumstances, and we are trying to work with welfare organisations to support boaters."
Boaters are an economically mixed and predominately white group, and do not face the same racist resistance as Gypsy, Roma or Irish Travellers. Many comfortable, stable people also live on the water, of course, but a 2013 study in Bath and North Somerset found that 59 percent of boaters chose their lifestyle because conventional housing was unaffordable, and that they were "marginalised from mainstream healthcare and care services". Some respondents had pulled their own teeth with pliers; boater Janine tells me she once carted a friend with a burst ovarian cyst to the hospital in a wheelbarrow. One in three respondents report mental health issues; two in three would "keep quiet" about domestic abuse on the waterway.
This small survey shouldn't be taken as an empirical representation of Britain's estimated 33,000 houseboats. But the report's author Professor Margaret Greenfield, of Buckinghamshire New University, suspects a nationwide census would return similar results. "Isolation and anxiety about insecure accommodation can lead to insecurity, depression, paranoia, anxiety and over-use of alcohol and illegal substances," she says. But there is no funding for a nationwide survey, because no one cares. "Boaters are seen as dirty gypsies at the bottom of the rung," says Marc Willers, the UK's leading expert in Traveller law. "They're perceived as 'travellers-through-choice', but that's often not the case."
Continuous cruiser Helen lives on a barge bedecked with National Bargee Travellers' Association (NBTA) flags. Helen has back problems (a common condition among boaters) and needs to take the boat for modifications to accommodate her disability. But she fears CRT sanctions if she docks to organise repairs. "They don't give a shit about us," she says. "They just want our money. They arbitrarily pick on the old, the disabled, the pregnant and the mentally vulnerable."
In response, the CRT's Coggins says: "It's not vulnerable people, but people tied to one area for certain reasons. People with a job, an elderly relative to visit, kids in school. They're the ones saying to us that they're trying to make a move every 14 days, but they're tied to a certain area. That's where it's difficult – those are the cases where people get into trouble."
Boaters often fall foul of the CRT's requirement for "bona fide navigation", a nebulous phrase the CRT refuses to define. The CRT does not tell people how they have infringed this, but simply slaps them with enforcement notices. "It's motivated by a profit margin," says NBTA secretary Nick Brown. "Waterside flats command a premium if there are no boaters moored alongside them." (Coggins responds: "I'd quite strongly say [profit] is nothing to do with what we're doing here.")
"It sounds harsh, but if you have kids or something then maybe continuous cruising isn't the life for you," suggests Coggins. But continuous cruising is the only affordable option for many vulnerable families. "The lower class will be forced off the water," predicts boater and academic Holly-Gale Millette. "But before being housed you have to become homeless and spend considerable time in a hostel. What can we do to protect older, single men rejected by the council, or pregnant women who can't bear the thought of raising a child in a homeless hostel for three years?"
There has been "absolutely more of an impulse" to remove boaters from the waterways since the Tories regained power in 2010, Holly-Gale says, while Nick notes that "escalating property prices are a symptom of Conservative policy". Lobbying from local councils and curtain-twitching anti-boater pressure groups compounds the problem, Marcus says: "They call us scum, scroungers, pikeys. They don't want us to exist."
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Holly-Gale believes virtually all of CRT's executives have ties to the construction industry, and that it is colluding with local government to its drive waterborne tenants from the canals. Councils in Richmond, Kingston, Colchester, Cambridge and elsewhere have recently evicted boaters or introduced bylaws targeting continuous cruisers. The Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), for example, is an "ASBO for places" used to criminalise non-criminal behaviour. One in ten local authorities is now using or planning to use PSPOs to target beggars, rough sleepers and other undesirables, a VICE investigation has revealed.
"We do have a property team, and we do own property along the waterways," says Coggins in response. "The property team's job is to maintain and protect that property. And we rent and develop land as well. But we will only do that if it's in keeping with the waterways, so I don't see the link between the two [property concerns and sanctioning boaters]. I'd be very clear in saying we've got charitable objectives in keeping the waterways open."
Outside of London, it is the busy waterways of Oxford where boaters face the most sustained attack. The golden colleges and affluent suburbs of the university city conceal areas of immense deprivation and a large homeless population. "A typical home here costs 16 times the average annual income," Oxford boater Cassi tells me. For many people, a boat is the only affordable option. But councillors and riverside landlords ("a cartel slightly to the right of Genghis Khan", Cassi says) are pushing through a PSPO banning unmoored boats from the city centre. If successful in Oxford, the policy will be replicated nationwide.
"The PSPO is intended to stop anti-social behaviour. It's unfair to call it an attack on people's lives," says Oxford City Council spokesperson Tom Jennings. But he admits "the green belt has become a green noose" suffocating the affordable housing market. His own brother lives on a barge because he cannot afford Oxford rents. Again, gentrification is a key factor in a policy Cassi views as "deliberate social cleansing". Boater Jeff agrees: "People pay millions for houses backing onto the canal, but they would rather canal boats didn't exist."
Oxford's boaters concede there are problems with mess and anti-social behaviour, particularly among the homeless men who live in a shanty town of dilapidated boats known as the Mill Stream. (Tory cuts closed a key Oxford homeless shelter this January.) "They might be leaky old boats, but there's fire and running water," says one of their number, Michael. "It's a hell of a lot better than sleeping in a shop doorway." He feels the PSPO, which allows any council official to issue on-the-spot fines, will fuel the "anti-social" behaviours it is supposed to combat. "If I haven't got a pot to piss in, where am I going to find £100?"
I make the mistake of stroking a kitten on an apparently abandoned boat. The boat's owner, who has mental health issues, emerges and chases us away with an incoherent torrent of abuse. "If Jake was anywhere else he'd be a massive strain on resources," says his softly-spoken neighbour, Tom. "But he's a pillar of our community, and we love him." Another neighbour, Damian, says vulnerable individuals in the Mill Stream area get regular visits from other bargees with tea, hot water and advice: "We deal with problems through talking, rather than isolating people."
"Once the council sent men in biohazard suits to clear out Jake's stuff. He chased them away, but we spoke to him and he let us help him tidy up," Tom recalls. "He asked: 'Why are you helping me?' And we said, 'Because you're our neighbour, and our friend.'" London boater Marcus, a former rough sleeper himself, says the canals are "somewhere he can actually call home". The same is clearly true in Oxford, and on canals across the country. But it is property developers, the CRT and local councillors who will ultimately decide how much longer Jake and Marcus are allowed to make a home on the water.
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