After the widely-publicised decision by former Manchester United players Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs to open their city centre property to homeless people in need, Manchester City Council has begun proceedings that will allow squatting in empty council-owned buildings for those sleeping rough.
The move appears to acknowledge both the vulnerability of Manchester’s homeless as winter approaches and the apparent futility of current infrastructure in dealing with an overwhelming and growing homeless population. The Town Hall’s decision comes barely two weeks after the heavily criticised eviction of The Ark homeless shelter on Oxford Road, jointly forced through by the council and Manchester Metropolitan University.
The opening of Giggs and Neville’s grade two listed property, to the amazement and jubilation of its inhabitants, seems to have acted as a catalyst for action on the homeless crisis and has ignited public debate. The council is set to co-operate with charities and volunteering organisations to establish functioning homeless shelters in the disused buildings, although there has been no date set for completion and no indication on which buildings have been earmarked for temporary conversion.
The original squat, the footballers’ former stock exchange building has, after receiving intense media attention as a success story, experienced difficulties; prominent Manchester activist Wesley Hall who was central in negotiations with Gary Neville, was asked to leave in an unexpected development.
Hall, who seemed to briefly become the unofficial leader of Manchester’s homeless after appearing in multiple interviews with national media, came under intense criticism by aggrieved residents for “running a dictatorship.” He was accused of refusing entry to homeless who were entitled refuge and forcing out existing residents in an arbitrary fashion.
The so-called ‘sock exchange’ under his leadership “failed to offer shelter to those in need and to fulfil its intended purpose” according to one homeless campaigner. The homeless camp on Market Street underneath the Arndale shopping centre was reportedly established by individuals prevented from entering the building.
Homelessness in Manchester has been thrown under the spotlight over the past few months as greater numbers of rough sleepers seek to establish some form of residence in the city, often in defiance of the law. Critics of the government say such social issues faced by Manchester, and other British cities, reflect a national housing crisis in the wake of Tory austerity measures that harshly attack the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable.
Since David Cameron’s government came to power in 2010, the numbers of rough sleepers in Manchester has surged sixfold and by almost half nationally.
Multiple campaigns have responded to these “alarming” figures; Manchester-based Student Action in Solidarity with the Homeless (SASH), who were unsuccessful in their initial aim of protecting The Ark, have continued to campaign after its removal. The space it formerly occupied now bears metal fencing to prevent any access to the shelter provided by Mancunian Way, although groups of homeless still gather at the site.
SASH are currently holding negotiations with MMU and pressuring the university to raise funding for a homeless support initiative designed by students. Their aim is to provide alternative shelter in response to the forced removal of the Ark—an act SASH has called “social cleansing.”
While the council is taking steps to address the issue, the seemingly contradicting actions of both evicting and opening doors to the homeless is, some say, symptomatic of a city struggling to find a viable, let alone sustainable solution to soaring homeless numbers.
However, the decision to open the doors of vacant buildings to the city’s most vulnerable will represent progress for the homeless and for activists, even if there is not yet a long-term answer to this difficult problem.