It was 1 o’clock in the morning on a Friday in early June, and Hayward Gatch was trespassing in what used to be a neighborhood, before it was razed to the ground by the government. Gatch kept a swivel head, with his hair tied back, as he crept through a towering sea of mugwort, wielding wooden pallets and a circular saw. All the while, he wore a black shirt with a mischievous raccoon sandwiched between the words “trashy & trouble.” Staff at the adjacent Coast Guard Research & Development Center and any local police who might be on patrol were oblivious to his presence.
Gatch, a wanderer turned graphic designer turned freelance carpenter, had prepared carefully for this outing. Off site, he’d spent the day preassembling what was to become a new home for his unhoused friend. He’d bolted together several wooden pallets for the walls, covered them with plywood, carved out a door and installed a window. Then, much like disassembling a puzzle, he extricated the parts and loaded it all up in the back of his truck for reassembly later.
Moths fluttered out of the cargo bed as Gatch took off for the highway. After a 30-minute drive, he pulled into what can best be described as someplace on the fringes. Gatch backed up his truck near the mugwort lot and scoped the area. The coasts were clear for unloading materials. This was the most sensitive part of the operation, or so I was told after absent-mindedly turning on a flashlight and promptly being asked to please turn it off. As a journalist who only wanted to be a fly on the wall, I quickly complied: My mind flashed to a scene of us being cuffed by police.
Gatch moved his truck to a spot that looked “less sketchy,” as he put it, while I squatted in the bushes. With the efficiency of a construction crew on a tight deadline, we stalked through a kaleidoscope of herbs and lightning bugs to find his friend, Adam O’Connor.
Resting underneath a canopy of sprawling trees, O’Connor’s lair was well-hidden. With walls demarcated by mugwort bushes and an accent piece — a handsomely massive rock — it looked ordinary from just 20 feet away. Inside, O’Connor, a woodsy man with curly hair, showed off a battered tent in one “room” and another where his new pallet home would reside. “I still haven’t been able to decide if everyone in the neighborhood knows where I am and they just don’t care,” says O’Connor, “or if nobody knows I’m back here. No one would look at this spot and say, ‘Oh obviously someone lives there.’”
And no one would have thought oh obviously a crew of self-described anarchists are building a home out of pallets there that evening. But that’s what Gatch was doing, as part of an initiative with the New London Mutual Aid Collective (NLMAC).
He lugged the wood, Weather Watch adhesive, and ice-and-water shielding for the roof into O’Connor’s space and got to work. The preassembly process dramatically cut the installation time and racket, thereby minimizing the risk of attracting law enforcement or other curious eyes.
Still, the ordeal was a risk. To minimize the likelihood of being seen, the NLMAC crew say they won’t venture out before 11:30 in the evening. “We don’t want to be seen throwing sometimes up to 20 pallets out of the back of the pickup truck on the side of the road,” says Gatch. “Even if a cop doesn’t see that, it’s just weird as all hell and draws unwanted attention. Any opportunity where people can see something’s happening, there is a possible weakness in security.”
If they are caught by police, they could be arrested and hit with state trespassing charges, which carry up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Such a confrontation wouldn’t be unprecedented. About an hour away in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 63-year-old Chris Morse is in a standoff against the state for residing in a tiny home he built on public property. While Gatch takes every precaution to prevent a similar scenario here, in other settings he is brasher about confronting authority. During a face-to-face meeting about homelessness with Waterford Connecticut’s first selectman — a mayoral equivalent — Gatch boldly said: “There’s nothing you can do to make me stop breaking the law. I’m going to keep doing it … I’m not afraid of your cages.”
Around 2 a.m., Gatch warned us that two police cruisers had pulled up on the closest street. We kept our voices down. Relieved, he reported that they were there to tow a damaged vehicle. Gatch proceeded to put the pallet puzzle pieces back together and performed his standard stress test of standing on the roof. It held up.
NLMAC, co-founded by Gatch and O’Connor in 2017, arose out of a desire to move beyond stuffy, theory-based discussions in leftist circles. “Me and a couple other people started to feel frustrated with what to us felt like an overly scholarly approach that didn’t ever actually end up taking any sort of action,” Gatch says. “So some of us decided, well, what if we just do the thing? Like, go do leftism.” The collective launched a free store, where people gather and share food, other items and services in downtown New London once a month.
As anarchists, NLMAC rejects authority figures and hierarchies, while promoting community autonomy and self-organization. This belief in what they call “acting as if one is already free” sometimes leads to confrontations with local police. In December 2020, the town of Waterford ordered the clearing of what locals called “Tent City 2” — an encampment for unhoused people. O’Connor, who was unhoused at the time, refused to leave. The police “launched several raids” and destroyed the collective’s first pallet homes and all of their supplies, says Gatch. “That pretty much entirely deprived us of all of our material infrastructure.”
The surrounding community, according to Gatch, has been surprisingly supportive since the encampment was razed. “That betrayal drew a lot of people into communication with us who were extremely disgusted,” he says. The disgust translated into increased monetary donations for their pallet-home initiative, which they decided to call the Autonomous Community Assistance Bureau (ACAB) initiative, a riff off the antipolice slogan “All Cops Are Bastards.” Since then, they have installed seven pallet homes throughout Connecticut and Rhode Island.
“The more photos that we post of these things, the more people get excited about them,” says Gatch. “COVID really changed the ideological territory that a lot of people existed within; like something as utilitarian as connecting people with housing used to be crazy to a lot of other people, but not so much anymore.”
Each home is custom designed based on the particular needs of the resident. Constrained by the lair’s natural boundaries, O’Connor’s was relatively small and discreet. Others are easily deconstructable and mobile. Some are heavily insulated with rigid foam or foil bubble wrap, which the collective freely scavenges out of a pet store’s dumpster. Each home costs just a few hundred dollars or less and is sturdy enough to withstand a harsh snow or rain storm. “Whether you choose to use this structure as a temporary shelter while waiting for resolution in the official housing system,” the collective explained on Facebook, “or you are seeking a more long term use, we are here to help.”
Spreading the word through Facebook has proven to be useful. NLMAC connected with Jesse Mcclain after seeing Mcclain’s request for help in a Norwich homeless support Facebook group this past winter. Mcclain’s tent kept collapsing during snowstorms, putting Mcclain at risk of suffocating and freezing. Lacking public transportation to Mcclain’s work as a greenskeeper at a local golf course, local shelters were not an option. A pallet home sounded like an adequate solution.
Within days, Gatch slung pallets onto the back of his truck and drove to Mcclain, who was hiding in bushes off a main street at around midnight. They swiftly unloaded the pallets together. Gatch moved his truck to a nearby parking lot and walked back to the spot, hooking his tools inside his coat to minimize attention. All the while Mcclain moved the pallets into formation. In between the screeching of the saw, they discussed their lives and politics under the stars.
Mcclain has been pleased with the result. “The difference in temperature, especially on cold nights, is like a good 20 degrees,” Mcclain says.
In Connecticut, as of December 2020, an estimated 7,823 people younger than 25 were “unstably housed” or unhoused. Reliable estimates that gauge the extent of the crisis statewide or nationally are difficult to come by. But there’s no denying that things are likely about to get even worse. On June 30, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont ended the state’s moratorium on evictions (while strengthening some protections for tenants). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 30 to 40 million people across the United States, including around 130,000 in Connecticut, could be at risk of eviction without a moratorium. Following public outcry, the federal version of moratorium was extended to October 3. During the short two-day period when the federal ban had lapsed, 154 families were evicted in Connecticut. Then on August 26, the Supreme Court blocked the CDC’s moratorium extension.
What lies ahead has been characterized as a “tsunami of evictions” by the news. A U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey estimates that 3.5 million people could be evicted within the next two months, in part because state and local governments have distributed just 11 percent of the $46.5 billion available through federal rental assistance programs. NLMAC is preparing for the flood with what they define as a show of solidarity for — not providing charity to — unhoused and struggling people who need support. This means that people who request aid are welcome to participate in the collective’s projects, although it is certainly not a requirement, and that NLMAC’s work is directed by the people requesting aid. “A lot of what we’ll do is consult with people on a spot and try to find what matches three different parameters,” says Gatch. “Ideally, you find a goldilocks zone of all three: security, being close to amenities, and the resident’s comfort.” Some people prefer to be in a relatively remote location, while others choose nooks of undeveloped land within a city.
O’Connor’s site selection also encompasses a fourth parameter, one of cinematic defiance: a big Fuck You to the city that displaced a tight-knit, predominantly elderly and working-class community in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, the subject of the infamous, landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. The City of New London.
The controversy began around 2000, when New London City Council and the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), a private nonprofit funded by the state, approved an economic development plan to “revitalize” the area into a lavish “urban village” with conference centers, hotels, offices and condominiums. NLDC sold the land to Pfizer for $10 and offered the company an 80 percent tax abatement to open a research and development center. But Fort Trumbull’s residents were obstacles. The city bulldozed forward by vacating and destroying around 115 private homes on the land. New London justified its actions through eminent domain laws, which give the government power to legally seize private property for public use. Some residents and businesses sued the city. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in favor of New London, and in 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case, and in a 5-4 decision it also sided with the city, holding that seizing private property as part of an economic redevelopment plan qualified as “public use.”
Pfizer left the area once its tax breaks expired in 2009, without providing the government with any notice. And, as it turns out, the land’s flood plain status — low ground near a river — is not a selling point for developers; the “urban village” never materialized. “I guess in a broader sense,” O’Connor says, “I’m the last resident of this neighborhood.”
In 2019, NLMAC started the Fort Trumbull Memorial Orchard on the land. They slowly remediated some of the soil, planted oak trees and apple trees, and installed a sign that reads: “A gift to the people, reclaiming land stolen by corporate greed.”
The eminent domain seizure’s unpopularity now provides the collective with a layer of protection. “A lot of the work that we do is hard to demonize,” says Gatch. “They might say we are not the greatest people. But it’s bad PR for them to be breaking up a donation event. It’s bad PR for them to destroy an orchard built on several acres of land that was stolen from a neighborhood. And of course, you know, stolen before that through colonization.”
When the collective publicly unveiled the orchard, it generated surprisingly positive buzz in the local press. Even the Renaissance City Development Association — formerly known as the NLDC — did not rebuke their efforts. Shortly after, Gatch was asked to speak at a New London economic development conference sponsored by the city, where he advocated for opening up the city’s constellation of abandoned buildings for use outside of the permitting process. “Naturally, the authorities put an end to that discussion,” he says, “but a lot of people were exposed to ideas that they never would have been before, and that all happened as a result of just blatant law-breaking, so you know, that’s kind of interesting.”
It was here, several years ago, in the midst of law-breaking activities like nurturing mustard and sunflower seeds, that O’Connor stumbled upon the site of his future pallet home. At first, he just stored some items in the space. He found himself spending more and more time among the herbs and decided to “store [himself] there.” As an herbalist-nursing student at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and a street medic, he has a proclivity for acquainting himself with the rhythms of the lot’s natural foliage. Wild rose, milkweed and mullein accompany the mugwort, and Saint-John’s-wort will emerge naturally later in the summer.
NLMAC’s work is small scale, yet they hope their direct action will empower others to similarly create the world they wish to see, without permission from authority figures. Gatch, O’Connor and other members of NLMAC plan on creating an instructional guide for constructing pallet homes for people who want to do this work in their own communities. And in the meantime, they’ll be creeping out into the night, navigating past herbs, feral cats and much more, to help put roofs over people’s heads, one pallet at a time.