Housing for all: Homelessness camp in democracy-free Manchester sparks new movement

Zardoz Greek zardos777 at yahoo.co.uk
Mon Jun 1 10:38:47 BST 2015

Housing for all: Homelessness camp in Manchester sparks new movement
Sunday, 31 May 2015 7:43 AM

By Natalie Bloomer

Kathleen France was just 16 the first time she became homeless. At 22 she was finally housed and for a while things looked good. But five years later, after becoming disabled with lumbar degenerative disc disease and developing anxiety and depression, she found herself back on the streets.

"I think my mental health problems were caused by my time sleeping rough, I used to get hassled a lot by men so I was always scared. I accepted the first property I was offered and it went well for a while, but then last year my benefits were sanctioned. That led to me falling into rent arrears and I was eventually evicted."

In April, following a march against homelessness, Kathleen and around 30 other homeless people and activists set up a camp outside the town hall in Manchester and called for permanent housing for all the protesters. Despite being evicted from that site, and then from another just around the corner, the group is now spending its sixth week camped out in the city centre. It is currently based in the prominent location of St Ann's Square.

"Since we started the protest I have been allocated temporary supported accommodation but I've been told that I can't be given permanent housing because I am classed as intentionally homeless," Kathleen says. "Nobody wakes up and decides to sleep on the streets. Many of the group haven't even been offered something temporary. We want permanent housing for all."

Among the homeless protesters is a man who is known just as 'Pops' to the group. He is 55 but looks much older. He has mental health problems, cataracts in both eyes and arthritis in his legs and arms.

"We are all looking out for each other," he says. "They call me Pops because I am like the dad of the group. I've got health problems but I will only leave here once all of us are given proper homes, or if I die, whichever comes first."

Photo by Charlotte Atkinson

Photo by Charlotte Atkinson

Government statistics show that rough sleeping in England has increased by 55% since the coalition was formed, just five years ago. But research carried out by the charity Homeless Link shows the number of bed spaces in homeless accommodation services fell from 43,600 in 2010 to 36,540 today.

Although this drop could be partly explained by the move to smaller services, with larger hostels being replaced with more personalised and specialist schemes, Homeless Link says the actual number of accommodation projects has also declined by 14% in the same time period.

And the research shows that one of the biggest challenges faced by homeless accommodation projects is that clients are often unable to move on from their services because there is no housing for them to move to. The main barriers are the limited supply of suitable rental properties and pressures on the housing market.

Similar protests to that in Manchester are springing up across the UK, with homeless people and activists coming together to take direct action.

Earlier this month, protesters were evicted from a former Bank of England building in Liverpool after occupying it for 25 days. As part of an action called Homes Not Banks, an anti-homelessness group called The Love Activists decided to use the building as a homeless shelter.

"With the deep cuts already inflicted and more to come, homelessness and housing is a major problem," a spokesperson for the group says. We all know one of the reasons for austerity was the banking crisis, which saw taxpayers bail out the 'too big to fail' banks. So we have decided to reclaim disused banks to raise awareness and create debate around the issue in order to facilitate the creation of a solution. We intend to do this through creating inclusive community centres and homeless shelters."

A splinter group, Love Activists Merseyside, is currently camped out with a number of homeless people next to the Echo Arena in Liverpool. And squatters in Peterborough and London have recently occupied former office buildings to highlight the issue of homelessness and the number of properties which are stood empty.

Streets Kitchen is a grassroots organisation which has set up an online space to bring together information and advice for homeless people. As well as providing details of support and shelters in various towns and cities across the UK, the website also promotes demonstrations and protests about homelessness. The aim is to have a central resource to provide help to anyone who needs it.

A spokesperson says:

"Every day we see more and more people using our service, things are getting much harder for people on the streets. Many of the charities that are there to help have had their budgets cut, and if the Conservatives go ahead with plans to axe housing benefits for the under-21s it will cause an even deeper crisis."

In February, the charities Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published their annual Homelessness Monitor report, a five year study, which draws on a survey of councils, statistical analysis and in-depth interviews. The report warned that a chronic shortage of affordable housing combined with cuts to benefits and homeless services would see rough sleeping continue to rise across England.

The reasons for a person becoming homeless are often complex, but with a further £12 billion in welfare cuts still to come the situation for some of the most vulnerable people in society looks set to get even worse.

A Manchester City Council spokesman commented:

"We are now looking at all options in our power, including all available legal options, with a view to resolving the protest. In the meantime we are continuing to engage with members of the camp. We are talking to them on a daily basis and arranging accommodation to anyone who wants it and directing them towards the local Life Matters outreach centre for support and advice."

Natalie Bloomer is a freelance journalist specialising in social affairs, poverty & family matters. Follow her on Twitter

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Manchester Mayor elected - despite not being voted in by the public

Mancunians tell Jamie Merrill that appointing a city leader behind closed doors is not their idea of local democracy
JAMIE MERRILL  Author Biography   Friday 29 May 2015
Kris McBurnie seems to speak for many of the voters out and about in central Manchester. “I had no idea we were getting a mayor,” he said. “And I certainly didn’t know he was being appointed today by the council. I would have assumed we would get a chance to vote on it.”

Like many of the shoppers and office workers bustling through the city, the 27-year-old financial services worker is not against the idea of more devolution for the area or even an elected mayor; it’s just that he has never heard of Tony Lloyd, the man who would be anointed by civic leaders later that day to lead the 2.7 million residents of Greater Manchester. There were no hustings or public debates.

Kris McBurnie Kris McBurnie

Mr Lloyd, who is currently the Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner, will now control an £8bn budget and lead a new experiment in city governance. However, there was not a ballot box in sight during his appointment – instead the decision was made by a “selection panel” of 10 civic leaders in a closed-door meeting that has already been described as an “undemocratic stitch-up”. He will be replaced by an elected mayor in 2017, but that has not stopped residents and governance experts raising objections.

Mr McBurnie did not “understand” why there was not a vote. Standing outside Manchester town hall, he said: “We’ve just had an election, but for some reason we’ve been excluded from this one.”

Others agree, including pensioner Denise Pover, who is waiting for friends nearby. “It’s such as terrible shame as they’ve done 75 per cent of the work by giving us devolution, but they have failed on the democracy part. I think it’s diabolical.”

It is a fortuitous outcome for Mr Lloyd, who was set to lose his job as Police and Crime Commissioner with the introduction of an elected mayor in just over two years’ time. Even if there had been a vote, it would not have been gripping political drama because his only rival was fellow Labour  veteran Lord Smith, leader of Wigan Council. Both men are close to Sir Richard Leese, who oversaw the selection, and Sir Howard Bernstein, the leader and chief executive of Manchester City Council. Leese and Bernstein have dominated Manchester politics for a political generation.

My Lloyd’s selection did not even take place in the Manchester town hall where his office will now be based; instead he was selected at a low-key meeting of the Greater Manchester Combine Authority (GMCA) held 15 miles out of the city at the stadium of Leigh Centurions rugby league club.

The plan was set in motion in November when an extra £1bn in funding was given to the region. It was given renewed energy by this week’s Queen’s Speech which promised measures to help build a “Northern Powerhouse” and more devolution for English cities.

Council sources are keen to stress that Mr Lloyd is only an interim leader until devolution legislation is put before Parliament in time for the 2017 deadline. They also add that he has no executive power and will be “constrained” by the leaders of the GMCA, which includes the leaders of Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan.

Back in the city centre, shoppers Chris Taylor, 47, and Nicola Thomas, 36, are among those unimpressed by the process. “I had no idea they were appointing someone today,” said Mr Taylor, who prides himself in following local politics. “There’s nothing in the local paper today. I suppose my first reaction is that it’s bloody outrageous.”

His partner, Nicola, pointed out that Manchester voted against introducing a directly elected mayor in 2012. At the Arndale Centre, travel agency worker Lauren McEwan, 25, is among those worried that the anointment will weaken support for local democracy. “I’m already worried that politicians don’t keep their promises as it is, so how can we hold them to account if we don’t even get a chance to vote for them,” she said.

Last night Mr Lloyd admitted to The Independent that he needed to “work hard to ensure the public views the process as legitimate”. Quietly some local councillors admit the situation is not ideal but point to the necessity of introducing a mayor to meet Chancellor George Osborne’s demand for an elected mayor to precede devolved powers.

But Professor Karel Williams from the Manchester Business School called the process an “undemocratic stitch-up”.

“The appointment of an interim mayor is not only disrespectful to the people of Manchester who voted no to a directly elected mayor in 2012, but it is also bad for local democracy,” he said.

“I’m in favour of devolution but it needs to be done in a tidy way. Instead we’ve had two candidates that nobody knows who haven’t debated and haven’t given interviews. They have no platform.”

Profile: Manchester's Mayor

Tony Lloyd is a North-west Labour Party veteran. He was MP for Stretford from 1983 then, with boundary changes in 1997, became MP for Manchester Central until 2012, when he stood down to become Police and Crime Commissioner.

Sources in his camp say he is keen to use the role to provide a “strong voice” for the city and to “sell devolution” to the public.

A former Foreign Office minister in the Blair government, he hasn’t announced whether he will run for election in 2017.

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