December is starting to get cold; it’s dark in the morning when I leave for work and often dark the evening. That darkness is now a constant in my life but so to also is Wayne, the homeless man who sits outside the Tesco I pass on my way to work. He’s not from Manchester originally and has been living rough in the city for the last year. Wayne is one of about 20 people gathered around the Northern Quarter area of Manchester; scattered outside Greggs or Spar, in doorways and alleys, sometimes sleeping and sometimes high but always looking up at the people passing by. Statistics, numbers, hard data, these are solid things that people use to find meaning and make sense of this world. Much of the basis of modern society is built around numbers and our use of them. But to tell you that up until this year the National Office of Statistics didn’t record the annual deaths of homeless people in this country is a damning shame. Indeed it took an investigation by the Manchester Evening News and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to force the agency into finally recording these deaths. Later this month those statistics will be published in full but so far because of the independent investigations, we know that in the last 12 months 449 people have died on the streets of England. Of those, 14 of died on the streets of Manchester and those are the ones who have been counted. We know that members of the homeless community who die in hospitals or in temporary accommodation aren’t listed in these figures.
To hit you with a couple more stats, as of this moment there are currently 320,000 people homeless in this country, this figure rises by the month and has doubled in the last 5 years (Tory coincidence I think not). Of those 120,000 are children, a generation growing up in unstable housing and poverty. We know that now 1 in every 200 people in Britain is homeless or stuck in temporary accommodation. Manchester is not even close to being the worst municipality in the country for homelessness but it is number 1 in the North of England. In Manchester, we currently have 4,000 people homeless and around 100 or so sleeping rough in the city centre any given night. This works out to another lovely statistic of 1 in every 135 Mancunians being homeless. Newham in east London is currently the worst borough in the country with 1 in every 24 in housing insecurity and 75 sleeping rough. For me the reality of this problem is startling, I moved away in 2014 to live and work Canada and upon moving back last year what I saw on the streets of Britain reminded me more of the tent cities that were prevalent across North America. It feels like it has happened so quickly but we all saw this coming. In a perfect storm scenario, years of successive squeezes on vital support services and endless cuts have exposed the vulnerable in our society and many are simply being forgotten about. A person dies every month on the streets in Manchester and while expensive flats and condos are being put up by the day, many more lie destitute in unsafe temporary housing and hostels. Needless to say, little help has been forthcoming from the Government. It was announced this week that life expectancy for the poorest in our country is dropping and we haven’t even seen the full rollout of Universal Credit and the £5bn more in cuts to the welfare state, austerity is over in all but name.
The Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham has been particularly vocal in his pledges to end homelessness and he seems to be doing all that he can. He currently donates a cut of his wage every month and has set up the Bed Every Night initiative. This scheme aims to provide a bed, a hot meal and support for anyone sleeping rough on the streets of Greater Manchester between November 2018 and March 2019. It is a scheme that should be rolled out all over the country, one that will definitely help those currently on the streets and stop a great number dying of exposure this winter. However it does have its caveats, it is only open to those from Greater Manchester, which is understandable from a funding perspective, as you don’t want to attract other cities homeless. However, a number of the homeless community on our streets are from elsewhere in the country and therefore aren’t eligible. My friend Wayne is one of those and while he spoke positively of the Mayor and all he is doing for the community he hasn’t seen many changes in the last few months that directly benefit him but he is hopeful for the New Year. The council is certainly in a tough position trying to figure out how it helps keep those who aren’t eligible safe this winter.
What do we need? We need more shelters for those who are currently sleeping rough, especially emergency shelters for the nights that are particularly cold. We need more social housing and better temporary housing, not rat infested dirty flats that are packed full to bursting. Social housing also needs to be a percentage of every flat building in the city and I would push for an overall cap on rents. People who are getting back into society need to feel a part of it, not away from everyone in a decaying old building with others also struggling. We need an end to Universal Credit and a reversal of every cut to major frontline services with proper investment being put into social care and the police force. We need to end the culture of demonising those of us who have fallen on hard times and those who end up on the streets. We need to change our attitude as a society, to become open and warm again and not push to the fringes, those among us that need the most help. Finally, we need to all do better, to remind our friends of poverty and let those in power know how unhappy we are.
Most of us are one paycheque away from being in a similar position to those that died on our streets this past year. It could happen to anyone and the only way to solve this crisis is to demand that the Government and local council leaders do more to help those most vulnerable in our communities.
Homelessness won’t go away, it is a national crisis that needs our full attention.