'...Six places at a fire station doesn't cut it....'
Today, new figures have appeared about yet another rise in homelessness in the country. But you don't need figures and statistics. Walk down Cross Street in the centre of Manchester and you pass at least ten people wrapped in blankets. The entrance to number 86 is very grand, with marble pillars...and evidence of at least three people sleeping rough in the set back doorway.
The next shop front along is BetFred – with owner, Fred Done, building publicly subsidised, unaffordable properties all over Salford and Manchester to flog to the Chinese.* And directly across the road, through the consumer orgy of the Christmas Market in Albert Square, is Manchester Town Hall.
And here, above BetFred, is the latest squat occupied by up to 15 homeless people. There's been other high profile squats at the Ducie Bridge pub and the Cornerhouse but this one is perhaps the most symbolic...
In a message to Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, one of the occupiers, Chris Blaine, says defiantly "I'm right outside your house now and I'm going to turn mine into a giant pirate ship and help as many people as I can..."
The political elephant in the room of Richard Leese and Greater Manchester Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, and his homelessness lead, Salford Mayor, Paul Dennett, is that, despite all the talk of solving homelessness; and, despite what seems like a zillion charities and organisations and people raising money, food and clothes for the homeless, the problem seems to be getting worse. Hence the need for this illegal D.I.Y. night shelter.
"What we've got at the moment in Manchester is a massive amount of homeless people" says Chris "None are starving because we've got a massive amount of food, and none of those people are going unclothed because we've got a massive amount of clothes. Nor are we struggling for volunteers because we've got god-honest people from the community out in town providing services for those lads and lasses sleeping in doorways and dying in doorways. Those services were never provided by the Council, nor any big private organisation, it's the community that kept us alive.
"Now" he adds "the community has been conned into working within a coalition of organised relief that is a load of bollocks; that wants us all to go to one place out of town so Richard Leese can stand on the steps of his town hall and say 'We've dealt with the homeless problem', when he hasn't. He's just sold all the buildings and all the land and we've all been pushed to the outer areas...
"...yet people who were already struggling, already poor, already had all their services shut down have come to Manchester because that's where the money is" he explains "So we've got all these people walking around town doing all these things, and do you know what it amounts to? Absolutely nothing. That sounds harsh and I don't mean that in a bad way towards people who are doing it; I mean, it amounts to the fact that the Council can just go on washing their hands of any responsibility towards the people who are on the streets in terms of housing them long term.
"A butty, a pair of socks, some clean underwear...all this effort is going to waste as there's nowhere warm or dry" he says "There's supposed to be, but there isn't. And six places at a fire station doesn't cut it. The only thing we need to make all that more effective is a building to do it in; so, again, I'm being a pirate and I'm sat on Cross Street, right above BetFred, who's slowly gentrifying my home town of Salford. He's making millions out of his little shop below, so I've now got three empty floors with electric, running water, a roof and security. We moved in and made a new house on the corner."
Chris says that during the occupation of Gary Neville's Stock Exchange building a few years ago, promises were made to homeless activists that were never kept... "We've tried everything since then to get the Council to step up to its responsibilities but no-one's listened."
Meanwhile, Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, has also made pledges regarding ending homelessness... "He seems like a man who wants to do something about the issue but the one thing he still hasn't done is dealt with the here and now; he still hasn't opened a building that can house the rough sleepers of Manchester" Chris explains.
Chris sees such a building as a major agent of change, with an open invitation to every organisation in Manchester to send representatives to help with homeless issues and win the trust of the street community. In the absence of the authorities acting, this squat, or 'house on the corner', is set to be a prototype...
"We're showing here, hopefully, how this can be done by a group of volunteers who are not professionals, who are not trained but who do have an idea, do have a care and do have an intention to make a difference" he explains "I'm going to do it as safely as possible and open it up to the public and the press.
"This isn't about anarchy, this isn't about being an activist, this isn't about charity - this is about the right to have a home; this about belonging and having a community and support" he adds "So we're going to show you how it's done and make loads of noise. We're fed up of walking past it, we're fed up of listening to your excuses and we're fed up of your inaction..."
And in a further Christmas message to Richard Leese, Andy Burnham and Paul Dennett, Chris made five demands...
1) "Provide social housing with the support to stay there – that means rent that a person on a minimum wage can afford to pay and still have money left at the end of the week..."
2) "Start a housing co-op for evictees who are going to be thrown into the street, regardless of what they are being evicted for – a stock of 300 houses that are owned by the people, not the council. 300 three bed properties is easily attainable for Greater Manchester authorities."
3) "Decriminalise residential squatting and follow the same procedure that they are doing in Ireland - there is no reason for empty houses to remain empty in a city as affluent as Manchester in a country as affluent as England."
4) "Open more night shelters - and make them more homely, not sterile, not regimented, not institutionalised. Make them like a place you would want to come to and feel relaxed."
5) "A big central hub in the centre of Manchester – it's needed because people are coming from all over into the centre of the city because it's like London, everyone's drawn to the dream. The hub should be mainly for those under 26, stocked with stuff that kids would find interesting; instruments, a studio, offices for outreach..."
In the meantime, the 'house on the corner' has happened because, as Chris says, Burnham's pledge of ending homelessness by 2020 "is not quick enough". Now, up to 15 residents in the squat, aged from early twenties to people in their sixties, have taken up residence...
"All have problems but nobody has a drug or alcohol addiction and they have all been ruled as 'no priority need', or 'no point of contact' so they're not getting any help" says Chris "This is the blag that Manchester Council is using for the homeless who turn up at Manchester Town Hall...
"At the Ducie Bridge pub we had an 18 year old pregnant girl who was not 'priority need' and an 18 year old girl with severe asperger's, who was also a sexual abuse victim, who was 'no priority need'" he recalls
"You need to provide a safe space during the day where these young people can go, where they are not being harassed by drug pushers, sex workers, paedophiles, bullies and predators who are all over our city, every night, feeding on the young who are in our doorways" he adds "We can provide a place for them, it's dead straight forward...
"To the community I say, 'If you want to see an end to rough sleeping in Manchester, if you want to see real provision being provided then come down to the new 'house on the corner' and get involved, we really need your help'" he urges "And my Christmas message to Andy Burnham is 'Get your arse over here, Andy'; and to Richard Leese, 'Come and get your hands dirty for once'..."
The house on the corner is situated above BetFed at 86 Cross Lane. For entrance buzz on the door, turn right at the corner and wait in the side alley...
See also previous Salford Star articles...
* Fred Done £22million publicly subsidised flats marketed to Hong Kong investors - click here
Salford Second Highest Level of Homelessness in the North West – click here