'Let down by the system': What is it like to experience homelessness in Manchester?
By Sam Joshi, Contributing Editor
Unfortunately, the exhausting and unjust experience of living in temporary accommodation and on the street is one shared by many in this city. Among the 6,848 homeless residents of Manchester alone, 68 are sleeping rough on any given night.
As well as being such a common experience, it is also one which tends to end tragically. According to figures from a 2019 report from the Office of National Statistics, on average, homeless people die thirty years earlier than the general population.
I recently spoke with Brad about the passing of his closest friend Daryl and their shared experience of homelessness. As we sat down in conversation about a background as tragic as it is typical, the ashes of his friend were held tight to the chest.
In a few words, how would you describe Daryl?
‘Hard work. Stubborn as hell. He was a man of few words, seriously man, didn’t really speak a lot, but he would come out with some funny lines, he could literally lift the spirits of a group, he really could, without even meaning to.’
What was it like in those last few weeks?
‘I wish he would’ve listened to me and gone to hospital when I asked him to. I actually was convinced he had a bad back. I had no idea he had a perforated bowel. Didn’t even know what one of them was. He must’ve been in some agony.’
As the victim of a perforated bowel, the pain with which Daryl died is rivalled only by the pain with which he lived, as a victim of homelessness.
Can you tell me about his background, and the experience you shared?
‘Five and a half years together. In a tent together, in a hostel together, on the streets together. We’ve had our fallouts, but never stayed away for too long.’
‘His family were shit, literally shit. Five and a half years and his family didn’t bother once to find him help, they only live round here. They kicked him out, he put a £2000 deposit down for a holiday, and they kicked him out the house. Took his money as well.’
‘He found out from a mate of his brother, that his little brother had a kid who’s nearly two. So found out from his brother’s mate that he’s got a nephew. Nearly two now. Sad that is.’
‘Me as well. Me and my sister, we’re as close as can possibly be, considering there’s 250 miles between us. I do miss her, not seen her for seven years which is sickening. My mum, don’t even understand it. Don’t even understand the relationship. Turning 60 this week, not even invited to her birthday.’
Subject to the breakdown of critical social ties, with family, friends and colleagues, Brad observes how ‘you’ve got to be careful, being homeless, you don’t alienate yourself from normal civilization, otherwise you become invisible very easily. I experienced being invisible a lot.’
Although ‘no two days are the same,’ Brad describes how most of his time is spent ‘finding someone to talk back to me.’
‘I’m getting ignored eighty-five, ninety percent of my day, blanking me like I’m not even there…It’s horrible, it’s disgusting.’
Shared in common with Daryl, it is an experience that stretches from the streets to the hostel, from which the expectation of support was dashed by the reality of neglect.
‘There was a cap on three nights out per week. We were staying out more than that. Nothing intentional, you know sometimes you’re tired, at the other end of the city and one thing led to another.’
‘We were given warnings, yeah, but seems they were only professional at the eviction side of it, not the support side.’
‘I had a key worker when I was living there, 17 months in I asked him – do you even know you’re my key worker?’
‘I was told, when I was being evicted, I was told they were thinking of moving me on to my own property, after 8 months of being there, but then I started slipping, and they told me that once I’d been in there for nearly two years.’
‘I said, why didn’t you tell me that then, so we could work on it, why you telling me 14 months later? What the hell is that about?’
Eviction would arrive and they both soon found themselves sent back onto the streets. For those who are homeless, being continuously neglected breeds and entrenches a deep-set mistrust in those to blame for the absence of an inclusive, affordable housing system. Living among a community characterised by this collective experience has connected Brad to ‘a lot of people who won’t accept accommodation for fear of it being taken away again.’
Their resentment is not without reason, but grounded in a shared sense of being ‘let down by the system.’
In the Queen’s speech delivered on the 10th of May, the government announced its intention to pass the Renters’ Reform Bill, a promise to ban No Fault Evictions. Under Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, landlords retain the right to evict private tenants without reason. Since committing to the bill in its 2019 election manifesto however, the Johnson government has overseen 230,000 private renters forced from their homes by valid no fault eviction claims. Amounting to one renter every seven minutes, this has become the second leading cause of homelessness, according to Shelter.
Strengthening the rights of private tenants is an essential reform, as preventative measures against homelessness are among the most effective.
Given the ease with which current evictees can find themselves exiled to the fringes of society however, the immediate priority must be the provision of an approachable, concrete support system. The justifiable mistrust with which many of the homeless regard existing services can only be overcome by the implementation of immediate and coordinated action, through initiatives such as A Bed for All.
Launched by Andy Burnham in partnership with the Manchester Hoteliers’ Association, the scheme aims to raise money for the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s Charity, whose top priority is the eradication of homelessness. Since its inception in November 2018, the programme has helped 3000 people, contributing in under four years to a 57% reduction in rough sleeping.
Among the participating hotels include the Stock Exchange Hotel, Hotel Football, Dakota Hotel, The Midland and The Lowry Hotel, in which staff working Front of House invite guests to tap £3 into the fundraiser. Every ten donations guarantees another homeless person emergency shelter for the night and wrap-around support.
According to Shelter, for the 68 people who spend any given night on the streets of Manchester, a further 6,780 are living without homes in emergency or temporary accommodation. It is this community, on the constant cusp of lapsing back into visible homelessness, for whom the quality of wrap around support is of critical consequence.
In its absence is a vacuum fulfilled by the repeated experience of daily disrespect. In Brad’s experience, 'people treat me like I’m public property' or even 'go out their way to be hostile.'
'I got hit over the head in the Northern Quarter, put a hole in my head…look back at the CCTV and see someone hit me over the head with a baseball bat'.
Homeless people are both the subjects and perpetrators of violent abuse, Brad explains as he recommends a YouTube clip of “homeless lads being sliced by a man in Market Street.”
'The fucked up ones are in my community…the fucked up ones have detached themselves from all societies.'
For the rest of us bystanders, walking past homelessness every day, the implicit association between its victims and violence is easy to make. This leads many to conclude that as victims of their self-detachment, the homeless are responsible for their own misfortune. The consequence of this is to further fuel the vicious circle, reinforcing the sense of neglect that underpins the perversion of so many homeless lives.
Brad’s insight reveals an important lesson that conversation about homelessness must not stop at the provision of support. It must expose the deficiencies of the support available, explore the experience of its dependents, and examine the pathway to fairer, more transparent, and less unforgiving services.
In its research paper on healthcare for the homeless, the U.S National Library of Medicine identifies four common elements that enhance the success with which any given service can support the homeless:
Communication; frequent engagement and interaction between agencies, support staff and their clients, the homeless.
Coordination; between healthcare, housing and social services to provide a comprehensive support package, in place of expecting the homeless to seek out disparate services unassisted.
Targeted approach; services should pursue an aggressive outreach in their search for clients, in place of passively waiting for the homeless to approach them.
Finance; an explicit outline of the resources requisite for the recruitment, training and employment of support staff, provision of accommodation and maintenance of a coordinated professional network is critical to the success of any fundraising initiatives, whether political, public or private.
Close, consistent contact between the homeless and their dedicated support staff could have seen Daryl benefit from a preventative check-up. The results would have revealed that the pain in his back was more than just the consequence of daily physical hardship, but the symptom of a life-threatening illness and the live-saving treatment Daryl should have had access to would have been delivered.
Hypothetical advice does nothing to avail Brad of the pain from losing his closest friend, with whom he would 'trade places in a second.'
If acted upon however, it may just provide the platform from which the victims of our failed system can set themselves free from the chains of homelessness, and back into society.
If you or someone you know is experiencing homelessness in Manchester you can find help using these resources:
Call Manchester City Council Helpline on 0161 234 4692 - between 9am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday for all Manchester residents
Call Centrepoint Helpline on 0808 800 0661 - between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday for anyone in England aged 16 to 25 years old.
Contact Shelter on 03301 775 121 - between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday and use your their online chat function for housing advice.
Attend a drop-in session at Barnabus Beacon Support Centre on Bloom Street - Monday to Friday 9am to 12pm.