It was depressing. Neglect hung over the place like a dark cloud. Rose bushes, once lovingly planted, were choked by thick clumps of weeds. A dehydrated hydrangea had fought for survival and lost. The green front door was bruised, battered, with its peeling paint bearing the imprint of a long-gone lock. Green plastic window boxes were filled with cracked earth.
I rang the bell. No answer. Despite the early hour, lights glowed through the door's amber glass and a radio blared pop music. I knew that no one was in, and wondered whether the electricity bill would be paid. No response to my, 'Anybody home?' Reinforcements had arrived, so I followed the instructions I had been given and asked one of the men to break the lock. One precise hammer blow and the front door flew open.
That was how I attempted to reclaim possession of my own house, in the presence of witnesses and on the advice of a police inspector. For years, my attempts to gain entry had been frustrated.
Surveying the front hall, I shook with rage. My Victorian hall table was cracked and littered with post addressed to unfamiliar names. The dado rail was missing, woodwork scraped, wallpaper torn and dirty, floors that had been sanded and varnished were scarred, filthy.
The real work of art was my sitting-room, now filled with tools, bags of plaster, boxed fittings, piles of wood. It had been converted into a builder's yard. One of my team called it disgraceful, and definitely illegal in residential property.
Elsewhere lay new electronic equipment, masses of CDs, several radios, television sets. Pieces of my furniture were missing. Bills tacked on the wall were divided into sixths. Notes at the telephone gave family telephone numbers, messages that one person was buying a car, another a four-week holiday in France. So she was on the Continent, and I was in debt.
I had worked hard to buy my house 20 years ago, and hung on to it through lean years as an actress, writer and teacher - divorced, non-supported with a young son. Working at all sorts of jobs to keep us and pay a stream of builders, and becoming a DIY expert, had been physically and emotionally draining. Every weekend and most nights I was covered with paint, plaster, sawdust.
After 10 years of toil, I had transformed a ruin into a lovely home. By then my son had left for university and, wanting to keep the place for him, I moved into a smaller house and let it for a ludicrously low rent. Now it's a wreck - no longer mine, except on paper.
Six squatters have been occupying my house for the past three- and-a-half years, and justice has turned a blind eye. Hundreds of letters and telephone calls and endless form-filling have turned these years into a hell of sleeping pills and frayed nerves. Hours have been spent with solicitors, mostly uncaring and inefficient, and whose ignorance of housing law delayed settlement of my case - as did the Legal Aid Office, which frequently lost my file for months at a time.
This Kafkaesque nightmare has caused me illness, exhaustion and financial ruin. I have become a victim - no longer in control of my life, my health at breaking point.
Why? Because under the law as it has stood since the time of the Black Death, I cannot repossess my house, enter it or gain access to my furniture and belongings as long as these birds of prey are roosting in it, fouling it.
Property owners cannot reclaim possession without a lengthy legal process, and compensation for damage is difficult to obtain. Even with money and a clever barrister, repossession cases can take years.
Since the 14th century, Britain has advanced in education, medicine, science. Why then are our housing laws stuck in the medieval mire? Why are these civil not criminal cases, when squatters on private property are committing crimes - stealing and destroying accommodation?
My squatters are educated young parasites from affluent families, aware of their scams and my financial position. One girl, who admits she never had a tenancy agreement, has conned the Legal Aid Board into helping her to sue me for 'peaceful possession' of my house. None of them has, or ever had, the right to enter my house.
Thousands of home-owners are or have been in my position. Shelter says this is a myth, but the changed locks and strange bodies in my beds are all too real.
My problems began when a former tenant stopped paying rent. She was served notice to quit, which she ignored. She was then taken to court but still refused to leave. In the meantime, despite having no right to sublet, and without my knowledge or permission, she brought in illegal occupiers - then finally fled, owing me thousands of pounds.
The people she brought into my home brought in others. I managed once to have them evicted and the house boarded up, but last July they broke in again.
It was last February when I followed the police inspector's instructions, and gained entry again. But two of the squatters walked in. They knew who I was and phoned the police - and it was me who was evicted as the trespasser. The police asked for my deeds of ownership, but not for proof from these girls, who didn't even have to divulge their names. I need my house back. Why must I go to court to beg for what is mine?
THE Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently going through Parliament and is expected to become law by the autumn, contains provision to give local authorities and private landlords the powers to evict squatters within 24 hours.
Under the Bill the courts will be able to grant an immediate interim possession order to the landlord. Squatters will then have 24 hours to leave the premises. If they fail to do so they face a maximum of six months' jail and/or a fine of up to pounds 5,000. The aim is to speed up the eviction process, which can take months.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content