Review of The Ethics of Space, by Steph Grohmann

Book Review

The Ethics of Space: Homelessness and Squatting in Urban England, by Steph Grohmann. Chicago: HAU Books/University of Chicago Press, 2020.

Interview and Review by Jane Sabherwal


Author Steph Grohmann writes from personal experience and we meet her looking like an extra from Les Misérables, pushing a trolley containing all her worldly possessions, through the centre of Bristol. It is -15 degrees Celsius.  She is unexpectedly homeless and has been taken in by her friend Gavin, who introduces her to the city’s squatting “scene.” This moment in time saves Grohmann in more ways than the obvious one of putting a roof over her head: it inspires analysis that becomes poignantly prophetic about the power thrown up by social inequality and class hierarchy in the 21stcentury, and ultimately secures her a place in academia.

This is an extraordinarily vivid and moving book, exploring the space we occupy, both individually and collectively, and how it impacts our very survival. It is a book where reality overtakes critique, for whilst it focuses primarily on homelessness in Bristol, Grohmann’s philosophical and psychological analysis throws up parallels with contemporary global issues, including migration, masculinity, modern slavery, and the #MeToo movement, and forces deep, emotional, moral reflection. In fact, the author dedicates the book to all who are out of place.

Grohmann’s period of “rooflessness” takes place in 2010-2011 when the hard-hitting impact of the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition and austerity takes hold and the legacy of Thatcherism still looms large. Private property and self-sufficiency, dressed-up as Cameron’s Big Society, dominate our neoliberal capitalist society, and the homeless “crowd” that become Grohmann’s family try to create practical solutions to the now permanent crisis of affordable housing and, through their struggles, explore new ways to live together securely. In other words, they try to reorder space. Grohmann argues that, as three-dimensional beings, space is essential for us to make judgements, especially moral judgements, and that we need to relate ourselves to the world in spatial terms.  It is a claim to legitimacy. Crucially, we need to occupy space in order to feel safe, to survive . . . in many cases, to literally stay alive.  Space, she says, is no less important than air and water.

The Ethics of Space challenges conventional portrayals of homelessness. It is the first ethnographic study of homelessness by a researcher who was themselves formally homeless. Grohmann brutally recounts the daily struggle for survival, saying, “There was never quite a sense of safety, even in sleep.” However, Grohmann also gives a great sense of hope. This is not a voyeuristic account that exoticises or romanticises the squatter as a poor revolutionary; it is a first-hand account in which squatters are proactive, and practical, not wanting to rely on the state but having nowhere else to go. Squatting, Grohmann argues, was a remedy rather than an extension of homelessness, because a homeless person had decided to take their fate into their own hands to become something other than homeless.

The book traces the history of the squatting movement back to the “True Levellers,” a religiously motivated movement in England in1649, but more recently squatting was an integral part of recovery after both World Wars and involved widespread occupations by both ex-servicemen and families displaced by bombings.  Following the First World War, injured serviceman Harry Cowley famously formed a group of local men who broke into empty properties, moving the destitute in, following up with practical support and vigilante patrols to protect them from eviction and violence by landlords and police. Cowley continued his work when traumatised troops returned after the Second World War to find what could be referred to as a housing bubble.

Roll forward a few decades to the Thatcher years when Grohmann argues the government’s economic strategy was a form of trickle-down territorialism which changed our ideas of ownership of space and legitimacy.  The solution for the homeless facing financial and housing crises at that time was familiar. Like Harry Cowley, Bristol Housing Action Movement provided practical support in making ‘empties’ accessible. It campaigned against privatisation and argued that commercial property developers should not evict squatters from buildings that have been long term empty; rather, they maintained “Squatting is one of the solutions to the housing crisis.”

In Bristol, Grohmann examines the social dynamics of empathy, recognition, and ethics, and demonstrates that squatting is not just about material deprivation or political disobedience but that it is an ethical practice intended to counteract the traumatic loss of full moral status, or “social death.”

Grohmann argues that the Thatcherite philosophy of territorial identity as an economic, but mostly moral issue, continues to infect the hearts and minds of the population today, stimulating negative sentiments about migrants and a demand for sovereignty. Inevitably, then, Grohmann asserts, this perception of a lack of space promotes fear and influenced the result of the EU Referendum in 2016. The parallels with squatting are obvious she says.

The author argues that spatial and social displacement produce territorial forms of unequal power and prestige, i.e., a lot of human interaction revolves around who decides who is allowed access to what type of space and when, in both a physical and symbolic sense.  This is a struggle over social status and legitimacy, and economic and moral inclusion or failure. Even though there is plenty of space to go around, the way we organise it means legitimate access depends on the ability to participate in the market. Grohmann worries that the current generation of young renters is being excluded from property in the same way and fears this will lead to exclusion, moral depression, and a lack of incentive to participate, destroying our communities and creating a society of selfish individuals.

Currently living in Scotland, Grohmann highlights that the attitude to homelessness North of the Border is more progressive and that local councils either side of the border do not talk to each other about solutions.

She does not blame cash-strapped local English authorities for not taking a more active approach, because they themselves are suffering from the same issues of social hierarchy and power as Central Government reduces funding. As welfare has reduced, the slack has been taken up by charities and the private sector, which sincerely wants to help, but Grohmann asks if this is really their job or the job of the State.

Grohmann hopes The Ethics of Space will draw the attention of policy makers to the reasons why people preferred squatting rather than being processed. “They could have been processed but instead they chose self-determination,” she explains.  “People do not want to be isolated; they prefer to come together in solidarity and to help others.”

The result of the General Election in December 2019 gives Grohmann no hope that anything will change for the better. “Another five years of Tory rule (and under Boris Johnson) is certainly terrible news for anyone vulnerable in the UK, including homeless people. The Tories have a decade-long track record of mass-producing homelessness through housing and welfare policy, whilst criminalising homeless people’s attempts to help themselves. The election result almost certainly means more of this, alongside the selling out of the NHS, which will disproportionally affect the most disadvantaged in society.”

She was already concerned about the insecurity England in particular is facing, with the advent of Generation Rent, who although technically have a place to live, have no security. “We’ve already accepted that young people will live like this,” she reflects. “It impacts their stress and mental health, and our community identity, because people keep having to move around. This way of living makes people selfish. It is the extension of Thatcher’s hyper-individualism, where everyone is responsible for their own survival.”

Such fears are unlikely to diminish during the reign of the new Conservative government. As the legitimacy of the system is questioned again, the ethical challenges for space discussed in Grohmann’s book, not only for the homeless, but for all those ‘Others’ outside the secure, property-owning elite, must become key components of all conversations about the type of society we desire in the future.

Steph Grohmann currently works at the Centre for Homeless and Inclusion Health at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently conducting ethnographic research on homelessness in the UK supported by The Leverhulme Trust.