San Francisco


Below is a guide written by Tim Maschok of Homes Not Jails San Francisco which provides advice on opening up squats, the tools one needs, not getting caught, and what to do if you do get caught.  We highly recommend that you read this.



by Tim Maschok

This is guide on exploring vacant and unsecured buildings. The purpose of this guide is to provide information on how to explore these buildings in a safe and responsible manner. An unsecured vacant building can be a hazard to the community, and it is important that as a member of the community one takes the time to check out these buildings to make sure that everything is fine. While some people say that one should contact the police to check out such buildings, I believe that they should not be bothered with such small matters when they have so many important things to worry about.

By the way, this guide equally applies to people who wish to open up vacant buildings to squat. However, I do not wish to be accused of writing a guide on how to engage in what many people believe to be illegal activity. It could upset my mom.


First, clothing is important. While it may be a nice day and you’re inclined to run around in the buff, there are safety considerations that suggest you will wish to wear at least some clothes:

Shoes: You will be walking into the unknown, so you will want shoes that can deal with the unknown. You may be climbing, walking through overgrown yards and fields, or stepping though a floorboard in an old building. Boots, hiking shoes, athletic shoes, etc., are good. Open toe shoes, sandals, flip flops, dress shoes, etc., are bad. A good question to ask yourself – can you run full speed in them while it’s dark? If not, leave them home.

        Socks: I’m a squatter, not Martha Stewart. Don’t care.

Pants: You want to wear pants. Skirts (and kilts) are not good – they can get caught on things as you are wandering though the unknown (or running for your life!). You probably also want to avoid pants that are too loose – warm up pants and super-baggy jeans – to avoid getting them caught on things as well. However, the pants should not be so tight that you can’t climb or maneuver around in them. Furthermore, you will want them to be made out of fabrics that do not tear easily like jeans, work pants, and hiking pants.

Shirts: Like the pants, not to baggy and not tear easily. Doesn’t matter if you will be wearing something overtop of it.

Jacket: This applies to jackets, sweaters, sweatshirts, etc. Like the pants – not to baggy and not tear easily.

Hat/Cap: If you wear one, wear one that stays on. You don’t want to keep on going back for it like Indiana Jones. You may not be as lucky as he was.

There are a couple of other things to keep in mind about the clothing you wear. Choose dark colors – the darker the better. Even though you will be exploring these buildings for the sake of the community’s well-being, people may see you in the building and misunderstand the reason you are there – which would upset them for no good reason and may cause you unnecessary trouble. Thus, it is better for everyone if you are not seen while you are exploring the building. Therefore, you want to wear dark clothes, go into the buildings only at night, and try not to be seen. Stay warm – being cold sucks. However, there is a little more to it than that. If you are thinking about how cold you are, you are not thinking about staying safe and not being seen. Also, you may go into a place and not be able to leave because some people have inadvertently ended up hanging out in the front. You could be there all night as it gets colder and colder…so make sure you dress warmly enough.


Second, as a certain Hobbit once riddled, “What is in my pocket?” What you carry or do not carry on you is very important. It can have a profound influence on where you end up at the end of the night. Only take with you what you need to explore the building (except for a few exceptions, which I will cover at the end of the section):

Flashlight: If you only carry one thing, this is what you carry. You are going in the dark into a dark, unknown place. Perhaps your sense of the auras and vibes could guide you through unscathed, but this is probably not the time to test it. The flashlight should be dependable. If you have to shake it sometimes to get it to work, find another one. The flashlight should not be too bright. You are trying to see ten feet in front of you, not trying to signal the entire neighborhood. The flashlight should have fresh batteries. The middle of a dark, unknown place is not where you want your batteries to die out. Besides, good luck on changing batteries in the dark. Carry a second flashlight. Shit just doesn’t work sometimes. Carry a second flashlight just in case. Spare batteries and bulbs, too. Believe me, I do it myself. And if the second flashlight doesn’t work, well…it’s just not your night.

Phone #’s: If Officer Smiley happens to find you exploring a vacant building and does not comprehend the public service you are doing by exploring the building, the officer may decide that the matter deserves further consideration and take you down to the station. In such a case, at some point you will have an opportunity to make three phone calls, and with one of those you will want to call a lawyer. Therefore, you will already want to know the number of a lawyer before you go vacant and unsecured building exploring. If you cannot remember the number, write it somewhere on your body – they won’t let you take your Blackberry with you to the holding cell. The other two numbers you plan to call – remember them or write them down as well (yes, on your body). Oh, by the way, you should make arrangements with a lawyer ahead of time before you explore a vacant and unsecured building so that your call would be expected if you happen to have an unfortunate misunderstanding with Officer Smiley.

Tools:       During the course of exploring a vacant, unsecured property you may come across a door within that is stuck shut. Doors get stuck shut sometimes. Since you need to look into that room to make sure that everything is fine and the community is safe, you will need tools to get the door open and the bag to carry them. For instance, a sample collection would consist of a Swiss Army Knife, a multi-tool, a small flatbar, a large flatbar (18” & 24”), a crowbar (18” & 24 “), a Phillips screwdriver, a flathead screwdriver, and perhaps a screwgun. A pair of bolt cutters wouldn’t hurt, either. With all that, I reckon’ that there ain’t too many doors that you won’t be able to get through.

Band-Aids: Well, did you see the list of tools above?

Water: A small bottle of water, in case you get stuck for a while.

I did not include a cell phone on the list. Due to the small chance of having an unfortunate misunderstanding with Officer Smiley about your reasons for exploring the vacant and unsecured building, Officer Smiley may end up checking out your cell phone. While you were more than happy about the fact that your significant others sent you naked pictures of themselves to your cell phone, you nonetheless probably don’t won’t those pictures making their rounds down at the station. Thus, please keep that in mind when you decide whether or not to bring your cell phone along. Also, if you bring your cell phone make sure that you TURN THE FREAKIN’ SOUND OFF!!!

Do not carry what you don’t need to explore the building. Drop those items off before you go out, and if you need some of those things for later go back and get them after exploring. It makes things a lot simpler for a lot of reasons. For example, if you don’t have it you can’t lose it, and if you need something quick you won’t want to be fiddling around and looking through a bunch of stuff you don’t need to find it. Staying safe and staying hidden is what one needs to focus on.

The following are the exceptions that I mentioned at the beginning of the section:

ID – you probably want to carry identification. Unless you have a specific reason why you wouldn’t want to be identified if you happen to meet Officer Smiley, you probably will want to have identification in case you do. The officer may agree with you that you are there on behalf of the community and agree to allow you to continue exploring or leave, but the officer will probably be less inclined if you cannot provide identification. However, when push comes to shove I do not know for sure what one should always do in matters of identification with police. Good luck on your decision.

Medications: Are you taking medications on schedules that you cannot miss? In case of the unfortunate possibility that you get stuck in the building or taken down to the station, you may need your medications. Something you may wish to keep in mind before exploring.

Cigarettes: if you got’em, bring’em, since you might get stuck up in a building somewhere for a while.

One more thing on the subject of what and what not to bring…if you got warrants and can do something about them, it’s a probably a good idea to do it sooner than later. Discussions with Officer Smiley will probably go better if you have no warrants than if you have warrants.


Where you are going – and what you may be getting into – is important. While exploring a vacant and unsecured building is a useful method to try to determine if the place is or is not a hazard to the community, information you can gain from other sources can be valuable as well. The wonderful world of the internet search engines can tell you all kinds of things. Punch in an address and let it rip. Government real estate records are on-line in many communities. You can also go in person to government offices to see records. Among the records you can find from government resources are records of who owns the building, transaction history, and history of permits and complaints. The white pages and real estate companies can be helpful to learn information about a property and its history. Not to mention the occasional news story that may pop up.


Knocking first is important. While a vacant and unsecured building may look scary, one that looks vacant and unsecured but is occupied is scarier. Since you cannot explore a vacant and unsecured building if it is not vacant, one first has to knock on the door to see if anyone is there. If nobody answers, either it is vacant or the person inside is too incapacitated to answer. In either case, the lack of an answer gives you the right to go into the building to make sure that the lack of an answer was due to a good reason. And…while you were doing research on the place, did you get a phone number? Did you call? Did anyone answer? Is the place truly empty? Are their ghosts?

DISCLAIMER: Unfortunately, this guide does not have the space to cover “ghost handling” if you happen to require such information to secure the safety of the building on behalf of the community.


Having partners is important. You weren’t thinking about exploring vacant and unsecured buildings by yourself, were you? By yourself, in the dark, into the dark? Wow, you are truly committed to your community…

Okay, time to get real. You will not be going alone. You can, but if you go alone you should stop wasting your time reading this guide because you probably won’t be exploring vacant buildings for very long. Unless you can see 360 degrees around yourself at all times…

At least two people, three or four is good, and five (six) will work. Thirty would be great, except for the fact that you would have the neighbors calling the police asking why a march is going down their street. You want at least one other person there with you while you are exploring the vacant and unsecured building in case of an accident. Good, old-fashioned safety. Don’t go alone. A couple of look-outs won’t hurt, either.

Good luck on your explorations of vacant and unsecured buildings on behalf of the community – thank you for your valuable time and effort. May the force be with you!