Death of homeless man blamed on anti-squatting laws

Daniel Gauntlett froze to death last weekend on the doorstep of an empty bungalow.

A homeless man in Aylesford, Kent, froze to death last weekend on the doorstep of an empty bungalow, according to Kent Online. Thirty-five-year-old Daniel Gauntlett had previously had trouble with the police when he tried to break into the abandoned building for shelter, and apparently took the decision to stay outside for the night, risking his safety to stay on the right side of the law.

Chris Hunter reports:

Derek Bailey, 80, who lives next door, said Mr Gauntlett had not appeared to be in ill health.

"They took him up to the hospital about a fortnight before when they'd found him and social workers got involved," said Mr Bailey.

"It was just the bitter weather. I know a lot about cold weather because I was in the Canadian army. I've known it drop to minus 70 but the trouble with this country is the dampness."

The news has been widely linked to recent anti-squatting legislation, after a bill signed into law last year made squatting on residential property a criminal act. The Morning Star's Rory MacKinnon reports about the site "Is Mike Weatherley Dead Yet?" which places direct blame for Gauntlett's death on Tory MP Mike Weatherley, who proposed the legislation to the commons. MacKinnon writes:

The Bill, which was proposed by Mr Weatherley and signed into law last year, made it a criminal offence to squat in a residential property - meaning police could immediately evict and arrest Mr Gauntlett. The MP could not be reached for comment today, but the creator of anonymous website Is Mike Weatherley Dead Yet? pulled no punches.

"[The] situation of homeless people is already desperate. Mike Weatherley is personally responsible for making it worse," they told the Morning Star. "I hope he remembers that every time he tries to go to sleep."

Weatherley's legislation sparked widespread protest, with much of the objection focusing on the fact that squatting was often the least-worst outcome for someone on the verge of homelessness. While a working housing system wouldn't need to allow squatting, we clearly do not have a working housing system. Charities warned that criminalising squatting would lead to an increase in homelessness, and the government proceeded anyway, with Grant Shapps, then the housing minister, saying:

We're tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.

That crystal clarity may have been responsible for Daniel Gauntlett taking the risk that ultimately cost him his life.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Relive your worst experiences for $15 an hour: how confessional journalism exploits women writers

The women’s website Bustle asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle; it puts a low-market value on their most intimate truths.

Let me tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me, the most terrible thing I’ve ever done. Let me tell you everything there is to know about me, all the buried markers of self that live under my skin. OK not that one, and I’ll keep that one too. I have to have something left over, after all. Even so, I’ve written about being the May Queen at school, and the time I got flashed in an underpass; about having depression as a teenager, and the unplanned pregnancy that became my son.

Actually, I’ve written about that last one twice: my first successful pitch for a comment piece was a response to anti-abortion comments by the then-influential semi-thinker Phillip Blond. It was a kind of pitch I now refer to now as the “what I think about X as a Y”: what I think about abortion as a woman who had and chose to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Experience is capital, and in 2009, I used it to buy my way into writing.

It’s a standard route for women writers, but not usually as formalised as it is at women’s website Bustle, which (as Gawker reported last week) asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle: “I see a therapist”, “I’ve had group sex (more than three)”, “I used to have a Fitbit but I don’t now”.

Every bit of what you are, granulated and packaged for easy dispersal through a range of stories. It’s an editorial approach that gives rise to a weird, impersonally-personal tone. “Five Reasons I’m Grateful For My Parents’ Divorce”, chirrups a listicle; “that’s why I tried anal sex in the first place”, trills a gif-heavy piece about the benefits of bumming.

That’s just the shallow end of the confessional genre. The ideal online women’s interest story combines a huge, life-changing disclosure with an empowering message. Like this, from xoJane: “I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star” (the last line of that one is: “My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride”). Or this, from Jezebel: “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” (which concludes like this: “And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault”).

It’s tempting to think of this blend of prurience and uplift as a peculiar product of the internet, but it’s been a staple of women’s publishing forever: the covers of women’s magazines are full of lines like “Raped for 50p and a biscuit!” and “The groom who went ZOOM!” about a jilted bride, exactly as they were when I used to sneak them from my aunt’s magazine rack to read them as a child. The difference is that, in the trashy weeklies, there’s no pretence that trauma is the overture for a career. You get paid for your story, and someone else writes it up. The end.

At Bustle, the rate apparently runs to $90 for a six-hour shift. That feels like a low market value to put on your most intimate truths, especially when the follow-up success you’re investing in might never materialise. The author of the father-daughter incest story for Jezebel told a Slate writer that, despite the huge web traffic her confessional received, her subsequent pitches were ignored. Her journalistic career currently begins and ends with her very grimmest experience.

“Everything is copy” is the Nora Ephron line. But when she said it, she didn’t intend the disclosure economy we live in now. For Ephron, “everything is copy” meant claiming control: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.”

Does the aspiring writer plucked from an editor’s checklist to retail her own Worst Thing Ever get to call the banana skin her own?

The Bustle checklist suggests not. “Don’t put anything on here you don’t want to write about,” it stresses, before adding, “that said, you can always say ‘no’ . . . You might be too busy when an editor approaches you about possibly writing an identity post, or simply not interested, and that’s okay! We won’t be mad!”

Ticking the box basically puts you in a position of assumed consent, but which hopeful young woman would dare to set her boundaries too close when an editor tells her this could be good for her career? (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like a story of sexual harassment. Funny, that.)

So many confessionalist pieces of writing tell stories about women having their limits overridden. Rape and coercion. Abuse and assault. Being talked over and ignored. But the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.

Women writers shouldn’t be waiting for permission to say no. We need to tell our stories on our own terms, and we need to set better terms than $15 an hour and the hope of some exposure. The worst thing that ever happened to me? It’s mine. I’m keeping it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.