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  • Beth Johnstone

Squatting in 2021: Hermitage Road London

© Squatting in Hermitage Road, Photograph - Ayumi Kajiwara

One musician with immigrant status resists homelessness during the pandemic.

Squatting, for some, is a way of life – an alternative lifestyle appealing to the anti-capitalists, activists and anarchists of this world. This, like so many things, was changed by Covid-19. The number of properties considered ‘squatted’ increased at the beginning of the pandemic – for those unable to access government support, squatting became the only option.

Cabbar, a musician originally from Turkey, became a squatter for the first time in 2020. Prior to March, Cabbar, known as Jabba, rented a ground floor unit in Omega Works – a warehouse in Harringay Warehouse District – along with four others. He’s built up a successful career as a musician in the UK and is a percussionist for ‘The Turbans’, a well-known band on the UK’s festival scene. In many respects, the two years he spent living at Omega Works pre-pandemic were joyful: “Before, the house was full of musicians. I’m a community person – it’s good for my art. In this place, people were able to share good energy and good vibes – what I want in the world.” But things were also turbulent. At points, the leaseholder of the property was taking rent from other housemates without passing it on to the property owner. Gas bills hadn’t been paid for over three years, and the relationship between landlady and tenants was overly close and nosy.

This dynamic, when combined with Cabbar’s immigrant status and loss of work, made him vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Because of the situation with the leaseholder, their landlady was now demanding rent. Cabbar lost any means to work because of the pandemic and was unable to pay, meaning that, along with two other housemates, he was now living there illegally. In April, she brought police, but new legislation brought in because of the pandemic meant she wasn’t able to evict them or cut off their electricity and gas. On top of this, the police realised that the building was commercial and that she didn’t have the right license to rent it out. Their landlady was forced to let them stay and acquire the correct licensing but continued to interact with her tenants-turned-squatters in ways most would consider wholly inappropriate.

Cabbar’s visa to live in the UK only permits him to work in the music and events industries, and he’s not eligible for government support. His landlady knew this and offered him work cleaning her house and garden. Thankfully, because he was helping her prepare for a party, he was able to write an invoice and work legally, but his landlady saw this as her chance to get rid of him and called the home office: “She knew I couldn’t work, so she made me work for her. She wanted me to write an invoice. I was nervous about it, but because it was an event I was able to write her one. Then she started threatening me and called the home office. They didn’t give me a visa for six months.”

Despite not being able to work, the three remaining residents were able to get by thanks to the cooking skills Cabbar picked up in India, where he usually spends the cold winter months. They cooked communal pots of dahl, thali and kedgeree and scoured the local Sainsbury’s for “reduced things and cheap grains”. The space accidentally became a hub for musicians and artists, many of whom now had nowhere to interact with other creatives: “I had tailor friends that wanted to use the space,” he recalls, “another woman wanted to paint. It all happened automatically, naturally.”

Thanks to Cabbar and his housemates, musicians and artistic friends living nearby were able to continue to make music together over the summer of 2020. Every weekend, the outdoor space behind the warehouse became a place for musicians to gather and play together. Each jam session was given a theme, usually based around the music and cuisine of a country. This kept musicians inspired, and ensured that each session was different from the last. Cabbar believes the power of music lies in exchange. Playing with others is a necessity for him, and is where he feels most connected to his craft.

Inside, the unit was kept in beautiful condition. Cabbar and his housemates continued to maintain it even after they were considered ‘squatters’ and were under no obligation to do so. Rugs covered the floors and instruments lined the walls. A grand piano sat in the corner of the living room.

© Hermitage Road, Photograph - Beth Johnstone

In the weeks before their eviction in January 2021, the property owner became increasingly present in the area, entering the courtyard and attempting to film her former tenants through the window on several occasions. As is so often the case, being ousted from the building meant the loss of many precious items. In this case, this meant the loss of the grand piano, as well as some of Cabbar’s traditional drums and a guitar. “They didn’t even want me to pick up my coat,” he laughs.

Cabbar has been homeless since the beginning of the year, but is surrounded by a strong community of people willing to support him – he has friends around every corner, quite literally, as we found out when we walked round Finsbury Park with him for this interview. The whole thing is painfully sad – being ousted from their home in a pandemic, losing so many instruments and belongings – but Cabbar is still just as vibrant, and will surely create just as much magic and music wherever he goes next.


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