Gimme shelter: Manchester’s burgeoning homeless fight millions in cuts

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Evicted from their protest camp outside Manchester’s town hall, homeless residents have dug in their heels from street to street.

They are facing off with a city government that slashed homeless funding by £2million (US$3 million) this year despite a six-fold increase in the number of people sleeping rough since 2010.

Across England that number has increased 55 per cent since Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was first elected that year. The latest official figures also show the number of households in temporary accommodation has reached 65,000 – the highest figure since the financial crisis of 2008.

“Why can’t we have a key to the front door, a key to our homes?” says Paddy Riley, one of the camp’s most vocal members. “We’re put down as nobodies but everybody is a somebody in the eyes of God.”

Jen Wu, an artist and activist has been spending time with the camp for six weeks and has chronicled her experiences on her website. “The first night I came down and just crashed in the tent and chatted with people until around eight in the morning,” she says.

“People’s mental and physical health is hugely compromised by being on the street. I’ve taken several people to hospital and I’ve had a few people stay at my flat.”

 

National symbol

The camp has acquired national recognition as a symbol for the plight of homeless people in the UK, winning support from activists around the country, their Facebook page boasting over 3,000 likes. Trade union representatives of UNISON – Britain’s largest trade union - visited the camp and made a donation.

Britain is facing a homeless crisis on an unprecedented scale, with leading charities warning that the situation is likely to deteriorate over the next few years unless the government takes drastic steps to avoid disaster.

While several factors have been blamed for the rise, a report released earlier this year by Crisis revealed that three-quarters of all homeless acceptances between 2010 and 2014 were attributable to evictions from the private rented sector.

Yet while the cost of rent becomes increasingly unaffordable for millions of people the Conservative government promised to cut billions of pounds in public spending over the next five years.

Charities fear this together with the failure to invest in social housing will only exacerbate the problem.

“The biggest cause is a lack of supply of housing, both in general terms in that there isn’t enough housing overall but also there is a lack of affordable housing,” says Francesca Albanese, a research manager at Homeless Link, a London-based organisation.

“We’ve seen a steady decrease in the number of affordable social homes that have been built and there hasn’t been a sufficient response to that.”

London has arguably been affected worse than anywhere else in the UK with the number of people sleeping rough increasing by 37 per centbetween 2013 and 2014, compared to 7 per cent nationally.

“The rental market in London is out of the price range of quite a lot of people,” explains Albanese, “there’s a massive gap between the housing benefit given to people in the private rented sector and the actual price of rent.”

The government’s own report into the causes of homelessness paints a disturbing picture.

Previously the majority of homeless cases were recorded as being the result of ‘behavioural’ factors, such as relationship breakups. However, figures suggest the primary causes of homelessness may be the result of structural factors.

The single biggest recorded reason for homelessness is now the loss of an assured short-term tenancy - the type of tenancy most commonly held by private renters – which guarantees the tenant the right to have their deposit protected and be given notice of eviction.

This suggests an increasing proportion of those living on the streets were made homeless due to factors outside of their control.

 

The backlash

Meanwhile, as homeless figures continue to rise, homelessness provisions are being cut by Manchester and other local authorities across the country as they struggle to cope with austerity imposed on them by central government.

In response, many of those living on the streets have taken matters into their own hands, organising political demonstrations and demanding that councils provide them with permanent housing.

In April, following an anti-austerity demonstration, a group of homeless protestors formed an Occupy style camp in one of the Manchester’s main squares outside the town hall.

Following a legal battle with the council, the protestors were evicted from their initial spot and subsequently moved to a nearby public street, yet the council has renewed attempts to have them evicted.

Their demands are simple. “They want all the camp residents to be offered permanent accommodation, not temporary hostel accommodation and they want a review of Manchester City Council’s homeless policy,” says Ben Taylor, a solicitor representing the protestors.

The homeless policy refers to the council’s categorisation of homeless people into two camps: those who are unintentionally homeless and those who have chosen to live on the streets.

Under the under the Housing Act 1996, local councils are obliged to provide accommodation to those who are unintentionally homeless. The issue, according to Taylor, is that councils may classify someone as intentionally homeless when a proper assessment of their circumstances would reveal otherwise.

“An example would be if you’ve been evicted because of rent arrears, because of the bedroom tax, he explains, “As we know the bedroom tax was a creation of the last government whereby housing benefits would not be paid for the whole of your rent if you had a spare room on the basis that you get someone in to live with you or you should downsize.

“The problem is there is very little one-bedroom property in Manchester, yet the local authority would conclude you’re intentionally homeless because you didn’t pay your rent.”

Earlier this year Homeless Link launched a manifesto in which it identified five key areas in which government policy must change in order to meet the social challenges presented by the homelessness crisis.

Among them: stronger rights for tenants, better support for job placement, an effective welfare safety net, and a commitment to end rough sleeping. All of which cost money.

Wesley, a camp resident in Manchester, sees a vicious circle between the funding cuts and homelessness. “The standard of support offered to homeless people by our government is so poor that some would rather sleep in danger on the streets.”