Manchester has seen a spike in homelessness in recent years. Official figures suggest that the number of rough sleepers in Greater Manchester rose by almost 50 percent from 2014 to 2015 – but then official figures can be misleading; it's been reported that town halls are getting their figures by doing head-counts in a single night and simply multiplying those over the year.
Homeless charities such as Manchester's Booth Centre believe the true figure is nearly triple the council's estimates, pointing to Manchester City Council's £59 million cut in funding to services in 2015/16 – which included reductions to the Homeless Prevention Grant – for the rise in rough sleeping.
On its website, the Booth Centre says: "In the last six months, the Booth Centre's Homeless Prevention Advice Service dealt with 2,557 advice enquiries from 556 individuals who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. Our four advice rooms are in constant use from 9AM every morning."
As such, one group of rough sleepers are taking matters into their own hands, which has prompted Manchester City Council to take action of their own against the homeless community.
The Ark, a group of homeless people who want to free up empty buildings so they can be used by the homeless, have been in running battles with the council. After after being forcibly removed from an area near Manchester Metropolitan University and pitching camp in the city centre, members of the group were served court summons, accused of breaking a court order that stops anyone from pitching tents in Manchester's city centre.
Ryan McFee, from The Ark, says: "They keep saying we're political – we're not. We're just trying to survive. The only thing we're trying to do is build a longer table, rather than a higher fence."
The council isn't having it, and has accused the defendants of disrupting businesses with intimidation, vandalism and more.
Ryan disagrees. "We had mattresses, clothes, portable toilets and a generator donated by people. We even had a sign out front saying 'This Is Not a Protest,' but the council came with bin-wagons and threw all our stuff away," he says. "We have to keep starting over, but we'll do it. We have to. If they're going to take the piss, we'll carrying on helping ourselves and each other out. The homeless shelters in Manchester are either too full, have no money, or they kick you out in the day. We want to do something different. Somewhere you can be, 24/7. Somewhere safe. The council don't want us to do that, for some reason."
Local press in Manchester have been following The Ark story, but Manchester's homeless situation made national headlines towards the end of 2015, when a group of squatters and housing activists calling themselves the Manchester Angels – some of whom were also involved in The Ark – took residence in the Stock Exchange Hotel, which is being renovated by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, a couple of former Manchester United players.
One member of The Ark, who wants to remain anonymous, says: "The media were really interested in us all of sudden – probably just because they wanted some photos of some homeless people standing in a fancy building. Fuck 'em. They were gawping at us just because some footballers were involved – they didn't give a shit about what actually happened to us."
The agreement was that the group could stay in the building through the winter months, with Neville reportedly paying for security and regular meals for the new residents. However, at the end of January, the group were asked to leave so the major building work could begin.
The evictees moved on to Bradley House, a listed building being converted into a hotel, but were evicted from there a couple of weeks later. Shortly after, while coming up with their next move, a Romanian man apparently approached them and offered up a £10 note, which was divvied out to buy a hot meal for everyone.
"See? People think we're alright. And we are. No one person gets this money. That's not what this is about," says The Ark member.
Later, Ryan continues: "We all got together and wanted to help people – because the council aren't. They don't want us in unused buildings, so they kick us out on the street. We get together and they try to break us up. They don't like us being on the street, so they ban us from being in the city centre. What are we supposed to do?"
Another member of the group, Adam, adds: "We know what people think of us... we know what the media is like... we're not a political group, but people keeping making it political so we get listened to. It's nice that people want to get our voices out, but we really are just trying to make something happen that's better than what anyone else can do."
While Manchester Council opened up two night shelters in council buildings at the end of 2015, they are set to close in March, leaving a number of rough-sleepers to pay for rooms at hostels in the city centre. Away from the group, a homeless woman who wants to remain anonymous says: "It's a choice of eating or a bed for the night sometimes. And the streets are too dangerous at the minute."
Case in point: the tragic case of rough sleeper Daniel Smith, who was found burnt to death in his tent at the end of January. A post-mortem revealed he had been attacked before he died in the blaze, sustaining multiple injuries to his body.
So what's the solution? The easy answer: money.
Without funding, councils can't pay for services that allow the homeless a roof over their heads while they look for employment or apply for council housing. And this – unsurprisingly, given the Tory cuts that target the UK's most vulnerable – is not just a local concern. Speaking to a representative of homeless charity Crisis, I'm told that over 280,000 people in England alone went to help from their councils in the last 18 months. The Empty Homes Agency – an organisation that campaigns for empty homes to be used as housing for those who need it – say there are 610,000 empty houses across Britain which could be utilised to resolve this spiralling problem.
For now, Ryan and others will carry on doing what they can in the face of council opposition. "We're not here for a laugh. We're not trying to prove a point – we're just trying to survive," he says. "The Ark's trying to make a safe area. If no one is helping us, why try to stop us? Why refuse us legal aid? Why throw all our stuff in Biffa vans? Why not work with us? It's fuckin' bullshit."
If you want to support The Ark, you can donate money here.
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