A MAN facing homelessness lived in a secret flat underneath a shopping mall for years without anyone noticing.
Michael Townsend, 52, and seven other artists, occupied the underground space in Providence Place, Rhode Island from 2003 to 2007 and landed on the wrong side of the law.
The Rhode Island artist was facing homelessness in 2003 when the historic building he lived in was sold to a developer, who claimed he had a 'commercial responsibility' to takeover the building.
Townsend had already visited another of the developer's projects – Providence Place Mall, where by chance he discovered a secret, unused apartment hidden in the structure of the building.
After a slew of protests that lasted two years, the artist and several others were eventually forced out of their building to make way for a supermarket car park.
But Townsend and his displaced friends decided the fight was still far from over.
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As a kind of poetic justice, they decided to illegally occupy the secret space in the mall, believing it was their civic and artistic 'responsibility'to develop the space.
For four years, they successfully and covertly lived in the mall's underground structure until they were caught in 2007.
Describing his decision, Townsend said: "Over Christmas 2003, radio ads for the Providence Place Mall featured an enthusiastic female voice talking about how great it would be if you could live at the mall."
“The central theme of the ads was that the mall not only provided a rich shopping experience but also had all the things that one would need to survive and lead a healthy life," the artist explained on his website.
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The idea then clicked – they would move into the unoccupied space as an artistic rebellion to the unending march of development projects in their neighbourhood.
"The new plan wasn’t just to live in the mall for just a week, it was now simply to live in the mall," he said.
It quickly became apparent that the area had not been touched since the building was completed in 1999, and appeared to be hidden away from a security team.
Filled with debris and leftover cables, the group of friends set about making the space their new home and sneaking most things in and out of complex in their backpacks.
They fully furnished their new digs and equipped it with a PlayStation, a 6.5ft china hutch and a sofa, while using the mall's bathrooms for running water. They even had artist guests visit from around the world.
Townsend had even bigger plans for the 750sqft space but they were cut short when a mall security guard stumbled on their secret lair and busted the group.
The Rhode Island native insisted their art project had been done out of "compassion", but it ultimately landed him a misdemeanour charge for trespassing.
In 2007, the artist avoided jail after the judge ruled that his act was not malicious and was handed a probation deal instead.
"I was surprised at what he was able to accomplish," Providence Police Maj. Stephen Campbell said at the time.
"But what he did was clearly criminal. The mall is private property."
In the US, the rules around squatting vary from state to state and you could be evicted or arrested.
However, the punishment will depend on which state you're in, how long you've been at the property, and whether the rightful owner wants you removed.
In January, Townsend told the Mirror: "They thought that if they could find an area that was undeveloped they had a responsibility to develop it.
"Through that lens, when we went to explore the mall and looked at that ginormous building we found a space that wasn't developed, so we thought we had a civic responsibility to develop it."
He continued: "It wasn't a protest in the sense that it was never meant to be seen. Protest, at its most effective, would intentionally change other peoples' minds.
"This was for us, more of an instinct – in a scenario where the idea of home, and losing our homes, and developers, all that mismatched together made the perfect desire to build a home again, and in some of the mannerisms of a small time developer, making one condo space."
He disliked the nine-storey mall built on 13 acres of space, calling it a a "gigantic curtain of commerce" and knew that it would have plenty of unused space inside.
"We see a big empty space and think, 'aha, we can work with this' – so we saw this and thought it was perfect," he said.
"It was windowless, lifeless concrete, very industrial, not designed to be comfortable in any way – that said, myself and my comrades are all repeat offenders of moving into mill spaces that are big and industrial and making them into our homes – that's our whole bag."
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After finally being caught, Townsend said, "It had been a really good run, I didn't feel any anxiety, it was the calm of ending a really excellent soccer game – you're like, 'ok, that was a great game – well-done everybody'."
Their artistic, but illegal, adventure is now being made into a documentary – The Secret Mall Apartment.
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