While the estimated amount of people sleeping rough in England has increased by 16% in the year 2015 – 2016, the North West experienced an increase of 42%. The challenge of creating a census on an issue such as homelessness means that statistics are by no means definitive: it’s difficult to gather data, and methods are inefficient and inaccurate.
However, this by no means suggests that they should be ignored. Rather, the difficulty comprehending the extent of homelessness points to the fact that it demands more attention.
Often surveys consist of an organised head count taken place on one night. This means that some individuals who do not have a home may not be accounted for as they could be resting temporarily in squats, hostels, or on sofas of friends or family members. This is known as hidden homelessness. Research conducted by the charity Crisis estimated that 62% of single homeless people are part of the hidden homeless. This illuminates a key aspect of the experience of homelessness: the transience of shelter.
Squats, which are normally taken up in abandoned buildings, can provide invaluable help to the homeless, and the support they provide can even surpass solitary housing. Though often denigrated in mainstream media as squalid and harmful, squats can provide the emotional and practical help for homeless people to regain a sense of community, and regain a sense of home.
In 2015, many of Manchester’s homeless residents took up space under the bridge on Oxford Road by the MMU. This was known as The Ark and acted as a place for people to sleep in tents, gather food from passers by, and enlighten the public’s consciousness of what homelessness looks like. Speakers would be frank, honest and answer any questions posed by the public within reason. There would also be fruit for passers by to eat; demonstrating that people without a home still have a lot to offer.
This peaceful act was sadly closed down, with police and bailiffs taking away the rough sleepers and activists. The council, who leased the area to Manchester Metropolitan University, were opposed to the homeless shelter, and together with the MMU worked to close it down completely.
When councils are liable to grant planning permission for food festivals, pop-up gin bars, coffee trucks and capitalist revenues, it feels sad that in the same city shelters for human beings pop up and are swiftly struck down. The council, and the government as a whole, need to provide a solution, rather than just shutting down attempts at self-housing.
Homeless people are kept in a constant state of transiency: meagre council budgets are directed at measures such as anti-homeless spikes rather than any sort of long-term, substantial solution. Not in this doorway, not in this park, not in that squat: it is as though the authorities want the reality of homelessness to vanish simply by moving it on, swept under the proverbial rug.
Rough sleepers must be humanized, even blanketing the people into a category of ‘the homeless’ is unfair. Each person who lives on the street, or elsewhere, is an individual. These are lives not statistics, people not numbers.
The solution lies in giving people an identity, by keeping the pressure on the council to act through petitions and lobbying, but also by publicly displaying support for those sleeping rough. In accordance with the permission for open-air food parties and new business revenues, the council respond to public demand.
However, despite 2,000 people signing the petition for The Ark to remain open, the council and the MMU still chose to remove the shelter. Figures from one night in November last year stated that there are now 189 rough sleepers in Greater Manchester, a number that has quadrupled since 2010. This does not even take into account the hidden homeless, or even those sleeping in places the surveyors could not find outdoors.
Rough sleepers come from a range of backgrounds such as abusive homes, financial difficulty, unemployment, and untreated mental health conditions. Instead of excluding those affected by the right to shelter, we need to act to include them into the economy by building centres and free shelters in which people can work and find livelihood and passions. Shelter is a human need, and a lack of it leads a dangerous route to poor health, with any vision of recovery fading ever further.
We must include, support, recognise, and humanize.
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