I first saw the homeless protest camp in Manchester’s Albert Square while taking part in a Stop TTIP demonstration; also in the square was the TUSC political party drumming up support for its election campaign. I am relatively new to Manchester and activism. It is a city with a long history of political upheavals: luddites, chartists, trade unionists, suffragettes and communists all found Manchester fertile ground and left it with a proud radical history. These historical movements that campaigned for a fairer society still permeate the air here, inspiring radical ideas and the fight for justice.
Seeing the small group of tents in the square that day, and talking to some of the residents, inspired me to actively help their cause. My reaction to the camp was a surprise to me; I am as guilty as most of ignoring the homeless or occasionally chucking them some change and then forgetting about them, seeing homelessness as an intractable and ugly fact of society.
The camp was initially set up in Albert Square on 15 April after a protest march through the city centre, calling for homes for the homeless and an end to austerity. Manchester City Council (MCC) acquired a possession order forcing them to move site the night before the eviction was to take place on 27 April.
The site of Peterloo
They chose St Peter’s Square next as they wanted to occupy land that belongs to MCC in a high profile location. St Peter’s Square is the site of Peterloo, where in 1819 the people of Lancashire were massacred because they dared to protest for parliamentary reform. It is also the location of Manchester’s Central Library, which recently underwent a £50 million renovation; this impressive and imposing classical building stood in stark contrast behind the small, fragile-looking protest camp pitched near its entrance.
These people have all seen the Homeless Assessment Team – we’re still here!
It was here that I decided to show my solidarity for the protest by camping out with them for the night. I turned up at midday with my camping gear, passing a banner strung between two tents with the protest camp’s Facebook page for “Homeless Rights of Justice Mcr” displayed. I was welcomed by Andy and offered a spot in the middle of the camp. Kathleen France, a camp resident, who had a friendly Staffordshire bull terrier called Belle, told me why she was protesting: “I hope that the council look at the problem they have. There’s obviously a problem, otherwise these people wouldn’t be homeless. They can go on about the Homeless Assessment Team all they want, right? These people have all seen the Homeless Assessment Team – we’re still here! That’s why. That needs to change.”
France, 27, was a founding member of the campaign who had marched on 15 April before setting up the camp. She moved to Manchester at 13 and first became homeless on turning 16 when her father threw her out of the family home. She has two young children who are currently looked after by her parents. France’s health is not good; she has lumbar disc disease resulting in chronic back pain, has suffered with depression and anxiety since 18 years of age and fears her mental health is getting worse due to the stressful conditions inherent with being homeless. She sang the praises of a local homelessness charity called Coffee4Craig, saying: “Whenever I’ve gone to soup kitchens it’s a case of ‘here’s your food, off you go’. Coffee for Craig stood out for me because they cared. They actually asked me if I was ok, they’ve helped me with my mental health. When I’ve not been able to walk they’ve brought food from the actual soup run to where I am.”
All through the afternoon, people approached the camp to enquire what it was about, bring supplies and offer support and to wish success in their campaign. It had been raining the night before and due to not being able to peg them out properly on flagstones, the tents were not as waterproof as they could be, so every available surface and a nearby construction site fence was being used to dry sleeping bags and clothes.
They’re all normal people, just with basic housing problems.
Later in the day I got chatting with Scott Russell, a 43 year old originally from Glasgow, and asked why he was protesting. He wanted “a home for every man, you know, every man to have a home”. Russell had served in the Royal Navy on board HMS Sheffield and HMS Illustrious, but became homeless two years ago when his marriage broke down and he had to move out of the family home. He explained that when it comes to homelessness, “they’re all normal people, just with basic housing problems”.
Substance dependency problems
Russell is also struggling with mental health and alcohol dependency problems and was aware of these issues as prime contributors to people ending up on the streets: “They should have it all under one roof, supported housing with a doctor, a foot therapist, all that stuff.” The atmosphere in the camp that evening was good and I spent most of it chatting with Russell, who is just a couple of years younger than me. There was one heated exchange where a drunken passer-by started ranting at the camp: “You should all clear off, nothing will change, your protest is pointless!” He eventually got bored of baiting the camp members and meandered on his inebriated way.
The average age of death for homeless men is 47 and for women 43.
Health issues, including alcohol and drug dependency, are a big problem for the homeless community, often playing a major part in them becoming homeless. These are then exacerbated by the unhealthy, dangerous and stressful conditions that homeless people are subject to. The charity Homeless Link carried out a survey on 2,500 homeless people and the report reveals some disturbing statistics. Physical health problems were reported in 73% of homeless people, with 41% saying there was a long-term problem compared with 28% in the general population. Mental health issues were reported in 80% of homeless people, with 45% having received a mental health diagnosis versus 25% in the general population. These increased rates of ill health and lack of access to GPs lead to increased hospital visits, with A&E visits being four times higher than for the general public. Homeless people average 1.2 admissions annually to hospital, compared with 0.3 for the general public; the homeless also stay longer during hospital admissions because of their often more acute ill health. The increased ill health inevitably takes its toll on life expectancy; the average age of death for homeless men is 47 and for women 43.
I woke up the next morning to a chorus of bronchitic coughs and vigorous clearing of catarrh. This made me feel at home, as I have my own respiratory issues, so I added my own contribution to the choir. The morning chorus also brought to mind that if I had to sleep rough on the street night after night it would not be long before I would need an extended stay in hospital. It was the morning of 1 May and MCC was bringing a second court case to evict the camp, this time from St Peter’s Square. The camp’s main defence was their right to freedom of expression, their right to freedom of assembly and the failure of the council to make sufficient offers of housing to the protesters. District Judge Iyer ruled that the defence was not strong enough to counter the health and safety issues documented (fire hazard, trip hazard, lack of food and water, but no mention of increased morbidity or mortality) and handed out a summary order of possession to the claimant, MCC.
The council’s annual count of rough sleepers in Manchester on one night last November came to 43; it was just seven in 2010.
France was one of the named defendants in the case who alternated between distraught and angry outbursts as we walked back to the camp. She was angry about the irony of a homeless person being evicted and the lack of compassion shown by the justice system, MCC and society as a whole. What were people thinking as they gaped at France’s outbursts? Probably that she was just another crazy street person. I wonder how the majority of them would have reacted if they had just been evicted from their homes and felt the whole world was against them. Back at camp the eviction didn’t take anyone by surprise, but the majority of people there were unbowed by the decision. There was a general consensus that the campaign would continue, with a move to another high-profile site within the city centre.
People are coming across increasing numbers of homeless people raging in the streets against the injustices of society. Across the UK, homelessness is increasing as a result of the government’s pursuit of austerity. Instead of taking money from those who can most afford it - tax-dodging international corporations, for example - it is making cuts to services that affect the most vulnerable people in our society.
According to government figures, in the first quarter of 2014 the number of households accepted as statutorily homeless was 12,540; this had risen to 13,650 by the last quarter, a rise of 8.9 %. The number of English households in temporary accommodation rose from 58,440 to 61,970 between 31 March and 31 December 2014, a rise of 6%. MCC’s annual count of rough sleepers in Manchester on one night last November came to 43; it was just seven in 2010. Local charities estimate that the real number is double that of the annual official count.
This problem can only get worse with the recent cuts, £46 billion over five years, to social security announced by George Osborne. The removal of housing benefit entitlement from 18- to 21-year-olds threatens the large number in that age group who are already suffering rates of unemployment three times that of the general population. According to information published by Shelter, the removal of housing benefit from 18- to 21-year-olds will affect 19,894 people. Not all of these will have the option of living with family members as 62% of young people become homeless because friends and relatives will no longer accommodate them, often because of relationship breakdown. Housing benefit also pays for temporary and emergency accommodation, such as hostels and domestic violence refuges.
Cutting this benefit can only result in more young people, our future, sleeping rough. The Labour-run council in Manchester did nothing to oppose these past cuts, and is making no noise in opposing the current round of cuts. The upper echelons of MCC are probably held in a trance by the dangled carrot of DevoManc, which I suspect to be a poisoned one.
I’d come out of prison and they didn’t sort me nowhere to live and I can’t stay with my mum.
One of the camp residents who belonged to this vulnerable age group was Michael. Originally from Wythenshawe in Manchester he had been homeless for two weeks, since being released from prison. He said he was homeless “because I’d come out of prison and they didn’t sort me nowhere to live and I can’t stay with my mum”. He described how he wanted to go home and sort everything out with his family, but that it just wasn’t possible at the moment. He seemed pleased with his ability to survive on the streets: “Yeah, I’ve survived out here for two weeks, having been somewhere cosy for the last 10 months.” His opinion on the eviction order was: “It’s always going to happen, it’s listed property. We shouldn’t have to be here, but we do, to prove a point that we need homes. Look at how many they’ve got boarded up.”
Leaving the camp, I was convinced that the homeless people living there were benefiting from the camaraderie, support, sense of purpose and safety that being part of the camp engendered. The safety element was an important aspect of the camp and, as that fact sank in, MCC’s argument in court about health and safety issues seemed even more ludicrous.
After the court hearing, police called round to the camp and said the library was off-limits to the protesters. Many of the protesters at the site felt homeless people were being discriminated against, calling it “social cleansing”. A protest was held in the entrance of Manchester Central Library on 5 May to restore the rights of the homeless protesters to use it. Council officials backed by G4S security guards and police produced the possession order and said it meant they could not be in the library. The protesters left peacefully and continued to protest outside.
Street homelessness is a problem for all of us, for which pragmatic solutions need to be found.
Rhetta Moran of RAPAR, a Manchester-based human rights organisation, has been supporting the campaign since its occupancy of Albert Square. She was critical of the library ban and convinced it had no legal basis, saying: “We’re still trying to understand the rational underpinning of the social profiling, which we consider deeply disturbing.”
The council juggernaut
The appeal against the eviction order was heard in the Court of Appeal by Judge Allan Gore QC on 14 May. He rejected the appeal but admonished “the juggernaut” of Manchester City Council, saying: “In a democratic society of the 21st century it is an affront that vulnerable people should be left homeless.” He mentioned the increasing scale of the problem and the loss of rights homeless people suffer from. Gore concluded: “Street homelessness is a problem for all of us, for which pragmatic solutions need to be found.”
The protesters were evicted on 19 May and moved to St Ann’s Square, home to St Ann’s church, consecrated in 1712, and a busy retail area of Manchester. Here there was a let-up by MCC and no eviction order was served on the camp, perhaps taking notice of the judge’s stern words. The council also agreed to further dialogue with the campaigners, after refusing to talk with them since some brief initial meetings.
The protest initially had been planned for one night only.
Danny Jones was one of the first people I spoke to in the camp when in Albert Square. He was an activist with the Homeless Rights Of Justice Mcr campaign and a catalyst in the development of the protest. During a meeting between the homeless campaigners and the Rector of St Ann’s Church he explained that “the protest initially had been planned for one night only” on 15 April in Albert Square. As more homeless people joined the demonstration, they became aware of the benefits (security, access to information, food and the support of their peers) the homeless people received from being in the camp. With the camp becoming a “homeless resource”, and the amount of support it was getting from the public, it was decided to keep the protest going. Jones described how the activists and homeless members of the protest group were “working well together” and had formed a community dedicated to promoting the aims of the protest.
I spoke to an optimistic Jones after the first meeting of the homelessness campaigners (supported by Unite community branch members) with the council’s homelessness steering group. “We are going to discuss all the issues, everything in regards to being homeless; so from the moment you walk in for assessment to all the way through, all the paperwork is going to be looked at. The council has said it is looking to implement the new strategy by October”.
Jones announced he would be leaving the camp: “We hit the two month mark on Wednesday, I think the camp is pretty much running itself now…“. He explained how living on the streets for nearly two months had taken its toll, but was adamant that he would still be supporting the campaign, just not as a full-time resident of the camp.
People who weren’t part of the protest started coming to the camp drinking, smashing bottles, being violent and beating others up. It made people run away scared.
Fragmentation and safety
Activists such as Jones and Adam Whelan provided a catalyst for the initial development of the protest, and a stabilising and directional force by their full-time presence at the camp. This was at some cost to Whelan who was beaten up by a bouncer and had to leave the camp at St Ann’s Square because of the injuries he sustained. He also had become homeless himself, losing his flat as a result of his extended presence in the camp.
There have been a number of allegations made that the protest camp is mainly occupied by professional activists who are not homeless. An allegation of this sort recently appeared in a Facebook page run by MCC called City Centre Voice and was reported by the Facebook group End Homelessness Mcr. Activists have been an important part of this campaign, but they have always been in a minority compared to campaigning members of the homeless community.
The loss of Jones and Whelan as camp residents was followed by fragmentation of the group, resulting in a satellite camp being formed in Castlefield. The cause of the problem, according to one of the founding homeless members of the campaign, Wesley Dove, was “some camp residents moved to Castlefield for safety because people who weren’t part of the protest started coming to the camp drinking, smashing bottles, being violent and beating others up. It made people run away scared.” Dove was also critical of the police, saying that they had not done enough to prevent violence occurring in the St Ann’s Square camp, and that they were too concerned with obtaining evidence against the camp.
The optimistic mood of the camp evaporated when MCC again pursued an eviction, this time not only from the current camps in St Ann’s Square and Castlefield; they were also seeking a blanket injunction on homeless protest camps within the city centre. The case was first heard on 29 June, but was adjourned because both of the named defendants in the case, Dove and Elizabeth Hodgkinson, could not receive legal aid through the usual channels as they were not receiving any social security benefits. This meant they had to apply for legal aid through the Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) mechanism.
During the court case on 21 July, defence solicitor Ben Taylor received an email saying both his clients had failed to qualify for ECF. “I am absolutely appalled in the way the legal aid agency has treated this application for public funding.”
The benefit system has screwed us over royally.
District Judge Ranj Matharu ordered an adjournment until 30 July, accepting the defence’s argument that to proceed without legal aid funding, and therefore without legal representation, would be against the principle of “equality of arms”. The judge reminded the court that she had cleared her lists and allocated a full day for the hearing, saying that “the hearing will go ahead even with no public funding”.
After the hearing I spoke to Hodgkinson, who was resident at the camp in Castlefield and had been homeless “for this particular stretch” for 10 months. She was unhappy with the refusal of legal aid and explained her problem with social security benefits: “The benefit system has screwed us over royally. I don”t want to be on benefits because they are going to sanction me whenever they want for nothing. I lost my property that I had, I had a flat, I lost it because of the job centre sanctioning me.”
The future of the protesters, and the homeless people of Manchester, depends on the outcome of the court case that was due to be heard on 30 July, where the defendants may or may not have had legal representation. It will be a travesty of justice if the case proceeds without legal representation for the defendants, and the inevitable outcome will be the eviction of the protest camps from their current sites and a ban from any further sites being set up within the defined limits of the city centre; with legal sanctions of two years in jail possible for homeless protesters breaking the injunction. Once this blanket injunction is in place it will set a precedent for similar injunctions to be issued against any protest group setting up temporary camps within the city limits.
Manchester City Council’s conduct during this protest has demonstrated a callous disregard for some of the most vulnerable people in our community: mentally ill, physically ill, kids out of care, survivors of abuse, ex-servicemen and ex-prisoners. You would be hard pressed to find a homeless person in Manchester that did not fit into one, or many, of those categories. Instead of treating this protest as an opportunity to address the problem of homelessness they have spent large amounts of money in chasing the protesters through the courts, trying to sweep the problem under the carpet, out of sight and out of mind.
The costs of extra policing and court costs for the protest came to £88,000 according to a report in the Manchester Evening News on 19 May. An excellent report by Crisis called At what cost provides a compelling argument of the economic folly that allowing homelessness to persist and rise engenders. It estimates the cost to the taxpayer, over a year, of preventing a person becoming homeless or letting that person become homeless. In the examples presented (based on real costs and experiences of the homeless), it estimates the extra cost to the taxpayer of not preventing homelessness ranges between £3,000 and £19,000 per person. If we take the median figure of £11,000 and multiply that by 43, the number of homeless people sleeping rough in Manchester, as calculated by MCC, we get the ballpark figure of £473,000 extra cost to the taxpayer if those 43 people are homeless for a year.
The overriding emotion I feel about the homeless protest is pride. I am proud of the fact that the most downtrodden part of the community in Manchester has risen up to demand better treatment for the homeless people of Manchester. When I see the protest camp I see a beautiful thing that cannot be ignored; Labour-run MCC sees an embarrassment and stain on the reputation of Manchester that must be hidden away. The homeless campaigners are upholding the fine tradition of radical protest in Manchester and I live in hope that the people of Manchester will find a way to help them. Whatever happens at the next court case, this protest is not over until the experience of homelessness in Manchester is an exceptionally rare occurrence and not an everyday one.