Last Friday the Manchester Activist Network, a self-organised group of homeless people, was evicted by police from an empty Pizza Express they had been occupying legally. The Manchester Activist Network was formed eight months ago to provide direct action and practical solidarity in the face of the escalating homelessness crisis in the city. Since then they have been occupying empty buildings across the city and providing support for homeless people within.
With each new occupation they have faced opposition and eviction from the authorities. In September a high-profile eviction from the Ducie Bridge saw one of the network’s members, Chris Blaine, imprisoned for eight weeks – a decision which drew condemnation from campaign groups across Greater Manchester. In spite of this repression, they plan to continue to legally occupy empty buildings in Manchester to provide safe and warm spaces where homeless people can get off the streets and get the support they need. Here they explain what has led them to take this direct action.
1. Manchester’s homelessness crisis is getting worse.
Anybody taking a walk through the streets of central Manchester will immediately notice it is a city with a high and dense homeless population. Last month, a report from Shelter said the city was the top ‘homelessness hotspot’ in the north west. It estimated that Manchester has 2000 people surviving without a home with an additional 1,292 in the wider conurbation.
The causes of this crisis are rooted in the broader housing crisis, from changes to the benefits system to the decimation of social housing. It is now costing lives, with two homeless people – known locally as Popeye and Uncle Albert – tragically killed in a fire last month in Manchester’s Chinatown district. With temperatures dropping, the streets are becoming increasingly inhospitable for people without a home.
2. We have to put political pressure on our local leaders.
In the face of this escalating crisis we believe direct action is required to give homelessness the position on the political agenda that it deserves. We know that this tactic works. Last winter an occupation of the former stock exchange led to the building remaining open throughout Christmas and the council opening its empty buildings as winter homeless shelters.
We occupy as part of a broader movement to call on our local leaders to act. Recognising that this crisis is one with political solutions, we raise the profile of Manchester’s homeless through direct action and add pressure for these political solutions to be made.
3. We are providing services the state should be providing.
Our occupations are not simply political statements. They are primarily a means of practical support and solidarity with the homeless population. As a result of austerity, homelessness support has dwindled. Hostel places are rare and often not the right places for people with complex mental health problems to be staying. In the face of the inadequacy and lack of services, we occupy to provide safe and warm spaces where homeless people can get off the streets and begin their recovery. Over the past year we have had considerable success. We have taken 40 people, the vast majority under 25, off the street and supported them through their mental health problems. This included eight women, a group at particularly great risk when homeless.
4. Housing first!
Our occupations are real-life examples of an innovative policy to tackle homelessness which has been developed in the United States with high degrees of success: Housing First. Rather than taking homeless people through different ‘levels’ of accommodation with the end goal being fully independent living, Housing First moves homeless people immediately from the streets to their own apartment.
We believe this system is common sense. Provide homeless people with somewhere safe and warm first, then tackle issues such as complex mental health problems or drug dependencies – instead of aiming to solve complex issues while people are living in insecure and potentially dangerous conditions. We believe this policy could and should be adopted by Manchester city council as part of its homelessness strategy, and we aim to prove the concept works through our occupations.
5. The council needs to engage with the grassroots.
As a community of homeless people with lived experience of the reality of the situation in Manchester, we believe we have much to offer local decisionmakers. Through our campaigning we aim to raise criticisms of the council’s current approach and seek an engagement on these issues beyond the force of the police. Currently the council is only interested in shutting down dialogue, but we believe its strategy and service provision would be far stronger if council leaders and policymakers were to engage with us.
By occupying buildings and working with allies such as Greater Manchester Housing Action and People’s Plan we wish to add a powerful grassroots voice to the conversation and create a housing policy that works for all. Manchester’s homelessness crisis has political solutions, but those solutions will only be reached if the council is willing to engage with voices from all parts of society.