One night shelter is hardly enough to serve an entire city’s homeless population. Unfortunately, that’s currently all Manchester has to offer – and that severe lack of beds has left the city’s small network of homeless charities facing an incredibly difficult challenge.
It’s been a year since Narrowgate – the city’s only homeless shelter – was temporarily forced to close after Salford City Centre found that the facility could no longer accept housing benefit, its main source of income. A private donation has kept the shelter open since, but only for four nights a week.
Graham Ridge, a support worker at the charity Barnabus, is visited by four or five people every day who are either homeless, or in danger of losing their home and in need of advice. “I’ve been doing this for seven years and there’s been a decline in the number of spaces available,” he says. “We’re over-stretched. It’s a battle for every service user.”
The number of people made homeless because they were evicted by their private landlord is at its highest in ten years, according to government statistics released at the end of last month. Around 13,650 households were accepted as homeless by their councils at the end of the last financial year, a 14 percent increase on the previous year. On top of that, the number of homeless households living in temporary accommodation in England rose to 58,590 in 2013/14, the highest it's been for five years.
Responding to the figures, Campbell Robb – chief executive of Shelter – said they were “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Some 2,225 families were accepted as homeless last year in Greater Manchester, according to figures from Shelter. A further 2,438 were living in temporary accommodation, 429 were intentionally homeless and another 2,332 people were found to be homeless without priority need.
Liam – who I meet at a breakfast drop-in on Bloom Street in Manchester city centre – is one of the many who makes up those statistics. Run by volunteers and staff from Barnabus, around 40 people come to get a cup of tea and something to eat at the drop-in every weekday morning. Liam has been on the streets for five months and tells me he struggles to get enough to eat when this place isn’t open.
“On weekdays it’s OK – this place is open, so you only need to get enough money for a B&B; you don’t need to worry about food,” he says. “But obviously this place can’t be open 24/7, so the weekends are more difficult.”
Given the transient nature of the homeless population, statistics on this issue sometimes only give a rough indication of the size of the problem. The most recent council figures show there are 24 rough sleepers in Manchester, double the rate of the previous year. This number is based on council officials and other individuals going out on a night in November and doing a head count of the people they could find sleeping rough.
Ashley, 27, who has been homeless since he was 16, explains that the figures can be misleading, as the majority of rough sleepers don’t want to be found. “I’m sleeping anywhere that’s warm and dry at the moment,” he says. “I’m a good person and I’m from Manchester, so I know people and I’ve got friends here, but they never see me out. I don’t want them to see me out. So I go to the places where I cannot be found.”
Matt has been homeless for two years and sleeps at the Shudehill bus station most evenings. "There’s a hell of lot more people sleeping rough these days," he says.
John Leech, Liberal Democrat MP for Manchester Withington, says the figures on rough-sleeping have been underestimated for years.
“A rough sleeper is someone who is sleeping on the street, whereas someone who is homeless has no accommodation that they have a legal right to occupy, but they do have a roof over their head – for example, a B&B or hostel,” he explains. “It’s highly likely these figures are underestimated and have been for years, given the difficulty in accurately counting the number of people living on the streets and the failure to check derelict or empty buildings.”
I’m told the same thing at every charity I visit: the number of people coming through their doors is increasing, and it’s proving difficult to give them appropriate support.
Dave Smith, founder and director of the Boaz Trust
The Boaz Trust, a Christian organisation that has helped destitute asylum seekers and refugees in Greater Manchester for the past decade, relies on volunteers giving up their spare rooms so their service users can have somewhere to sleep.
“We’re always overstretched,” explains director and founder Dave Smith. “We’ve got 50 people on our waiting list at the moment.”
Downstairs from Boaz in their Oldham Road office is Mustard Tree, an homeless charity with a client list numbering over 19,000 people. They have recently expanded to employ 16 staff, and Graham Hudson – the charity’s Creative Programmes Director, who overcame a life of gang violence and drug addiction before getting involved in the charity – tells me he’s surprised to find himself working in a “growth industry”.
The Booth Centre is an organisation that offers meals, advice and training to around 170 people each week. Visitors at the centre are evenly split between rough-sleepers, people in temporary accommodation and those who have recently been housed but are struggling to cope with the demands of a normal lifestyle.
Amanda Croome is the chief executive of the centre, which is just round the corner from Strangeways prison. The building has a kitchen, computer rooms, a garden and a performance space where theatre groups from the Royal Exchange come to put on workshops. She says the economic downturn and cuts to services have led to a surge in the number of people using the facility.
“The services that we now have in this city don’t really meet the needs of the people we see,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of night shelters in the city has also had an impact. As Amanda explains, previously the police would be able drop rough sleepers off at the 80-bed shelter run by the Salvation Army. The closure of this facility in 2011 meant this option was no longer available.
Amanda worries that the proposed Universal Credit benefits reform – which will see people receive their housing benefit directly, rather than it being given to their landlords – will increase homelessness in the city.
“With universal credit it’s a great idea that work should pay more than benefits, but giving drug and alcohol users their housing benefit rather than giving it straight to their landlord is madness,” she argues. “The first thing they’ll do when they get that money is try to score. It will be a good system for a whole section of people, but for a group that are largely ignored, it could be catastrophic.”
The lack of housing supply in the city is also a concern; over 85,000 people were on the waiting list for council housing in Greater Manchester last year, according to figures from Shelter.
Graham Ridge struggles to find accommodation for the people who come to him for advice.
“Very often people come in asking for accommodation over the weekend, and there’s just nowhere to put them. We can sometimes find them a place in a B&B, but those spaces are rare,” he says. “In the past week I’ve done three referrals to a supported accommodation provider, but even if they accept the people there’s no guarantee that they’ll get in. They’ll most likely be put on a waiting list.”
Joan Campbell, right, says she's the happiest she's ever been since going to the Booth Centre.
Involved in the founding of the Booth Centre in 1995, Amanda has a calm sense of authority and is well liked by staff and service users; walking around the centre I meet three people who say they would “do anything for her”. Joan Campbell, who’s in her fifties, spent a year living in hostels while waiting for a flat to become available after becoming homeless 18 months ago. “Over the years I’ve had more support here than I've ever had in my entire life,” she says. “All my friends are here.”
As I get ready to leave the centre, a tall man with a cut on his chin walks in and asks if there’s anything to eat. “Hi Kevin,” says Amanda, before telling him that lunch won’t be ready for another 40 minutes, but that he’s welcome to have some soup. I ask her if it’s normal for people to walk in off the street like that. She says it is and admits it can be hard to keep track of those who use the centre. “It’s normally when people have hit really hard times that they come back,” she explains. “I haven’t seen Kevin for 15 years.”
For Manchester’s long-term homeless, the lack of housing, cuts to services and an absence of more than one night shelter in the city have created a dire and unmanageable situation. And the longer this persists, the harder it will be for those being let down by the system to get back on their feet.
Ashley, who doesn’t like his friends seeing him sleeping rough, tells me he was top of his class and set to go to college before he found himself living on the streets.
“You know when you were a kid and you would get all your Lego bricks, and build something really big, only for a friend to come over and kick it all down?” he says. “That’s how I feel. How many more times do I have to start again to get back to that point?”
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