Bright lights, cardboard city

A new National Audit Office report lays out the true picture of homelessness across our cities. Why is Manchester bearing the biggest brunt?

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Groundbreaking scientific research, two world-famous football teams, an international festival and a renowned music scene – Manchester is performing well on the world stage. Earlier this year it was ranked third – behind London and Paris – in a report on international cities of influence, and is praised as great place to work, play and live. But for over 1,000 households in temporary accommodation and scores of people on the city streets, Manchester offers a very different lifestyle.

“We advertise ourselves as this great 24 hour city where you can get work,” says Amanda Croome, chief executive of the Manchester homeless service the Booth Centre. “But if you want to attract people in general, you also attract people who it doesn’t quite work for.”

The Booth Centre contributed to a National Audit Office (NAO) report on homelessness in England published this month. It shows Manchester has been among the hardest hit with homelessness since the Conservatives took office in 2010. The scathing report acknowledged what services like the Booth Centre say they already knew.

“It appears likely that the decrease in affordability of properties in the private rented sector, of which welfare reforms such as the capping of Local Housing Allowance are an element, have driven this increase in homelessness,” according to Amyas Morse, head of the NAO. “The government has not evaluated the impact of its reforms on this issue, and there remain gaps in its approach.”

“There’s been a big shift in the council towards working with homeless people.”

The report found the Department for Communities and Local Government, responsible for tackling homelessness, does not have a published cross-government strategy to prevent and tackle homelessness, and has taken a “light touch” approach to working with local authorities. Although it requires each local authority to have a homelessness strategy, it does not monitor their content or progress. The DCLG, concludes Morse, “cannot be considered value for money.”

Nationally there has been a 134 per cent rise, bringing the total number of visible rough sleepers in a single night to 4,134. There are over 77,000 households in temporary accommodation across the country – including 120,540 children – a rise of 60 per cent.

Since March 2011 Manchester has had the sharpest increase of any main English city in households in temporary accommodation – 299 per cent, five times the 60 per cent increase nationally. In March 2017 there were 1,145 households in temporary accommodation, accounting for more than half of the North West’s figure. There has been an increase of 1,014 per cent in rough sleeping since 2010, with 78 of the region’s 313 street homeless counted on a single night in autumn last year. Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, the other three main cities on Big Issue North’s patch, also have rising homelessness, but not as bad as Manchester.

That figure is only a snapshot and many experts believe it under-estimates rough sleeping. “A few years ago we found seven people,” says Croome. “This year we found 78. So that shows you the proportional increase, but no one is claiming there are only 78 people living on the streets.”

The NAO report says variations in homelessness are associated with the proportion of households in the area receiving housing benefit, the “broad character” of an area, and the affordability of private accommodation. Helen Mathie, head of policy at Homeless Link, the organisation for homelessness charities in England, says the reasons homelessness is a bigger problem in certain cities are complex.

“Local housing and employment markets and levels of multiple deprivation all contribute, and the availability and quality of homelessness and related services will impact on how well an area is able to respond when people find themselves rough sleeping or in housing need,” she says. “Factors such as particularly high housing costs, or the closure of services, might impact on the numbers who find themselves homeless.”

Part of Manchester’s broad character is that it is regarded as a “centre of economic activity”, where, the NAO says, homelessness tends to be high as households struggle to pay market rents. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom home in 2016-17 was £662, according to the Valuation Office Agency. Liverpool rents were £464, in Sheffield £509, and in Leeds £551. Yet average earnings in those cities are broadly in line with each other, revealing Manchester’s affordability problem.

“Some homeless people do migrate in,” says Croome. “But quite a big majority are people from across Greater Manchester.

“In Manchester we did have a massive reduction in the amount of temporary accommodation available in the last few years – that’s now starting to be put that back in place. We’ve got a lot of hostels but there isn’t enough affordable housing so people aren’t moving on quickly enough. The hostels are full so we’ve got people on the streets.”

In comparison to Liverpool’s £1.5m, Leeds’ £3.9m and Sheffield’s £1.3m, Manchester City Council spent £10.9m on homelessness services during 2015-16.

Big Issue North homelessness figs

“Homelessness is an issue that the city is taking very seriously and we need to work hard and work quickly to ensure those vulnerable to the prospect of homelessness have the support network in place to keep a roof over their head,” says Bernard Priest, deputy leader of Manchester City Council.

Croome is positive about Manchester City Council’s efforts. In May 2016 the Manchester Homelessness Partnership launched, bringing together public, voluntary and faith sector organisations to tackle the problem. In April this year the partnership launched the Manchester Homelessness Charter, asking organisations to pledge their skills and support to help homeless people – although it doesn’t come with any extra funding. Big Issue North is a signatory.

“Manchester has recognised it has a really big problem because you can’t walk through Manchester without seeing it’s a really big problem. A lot of extra resources have been put in, particularly since April,” says Croome. “The council has recognised that they can’t solve the problems on their own and there’s been a really big shift towards working with homeless people. It is genuinely a change. We will just have to see over the next 12 months if that makes a difference.”

New research by the Chartered Institute of Housing and Sheffield University reveals that the vast majority of councils and housing associations think welfare policy undermines their efforts to tackle homelessness. Of 106 local authorities that responded to a survey, 84 per cent said it had negatively affected their work to tackle homelessness. Nearly half of housing associations said people’s inability to afford rent due to welfare policy is a main reason for refusing a nomination of a homeless household.

“Councils are having to house the equivalent of an extra secondary school’s worth of homeless children in temporary accommodation every month. The net cost to councils of doing this has tripled in the last three years, as they plug the gap between rising rents and frozen housing benefit,” says the Local Government Association’s Martin Tett.

“Councils are working hard to tackle homelessness and are focusing on preventing it happening. We now need the government to support this local effort, by allowing councils to invest in building genuinely affordable homes and providing the support and resources they need to help prevent people becoming homeless in the first place.”

Priest says Manchester City Council – which assesses its extra investment in homelessness in the last year to be worth £1.5 million – has been warning about the effect of cuts for some time. “The impact of government welfare reforms – without any real understanding of the effect they have on people’s lives – is a major factor here, and we need assurance from government that our residents will get the help they need.”

Last week the council promised to expand its rough sleeper outreach team, to provide an extra 13 beds at Homeless Settlement – a provision for 16-24 year olds in Openshaw, to introduce a resettlement scheme to support people moving from hostels into their own homes, and improve prevention services – such as in budgeting – working with people at risk of homelessness. Plans are also being developed for a new 24 hour access centre with an extra 38 temporary bed spaces for people who have recently started rough sleeping.

The council says it welcomes the support of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, whose homelessness fund has raised more than £50,000 since he took office in May.

“It remains a top priority for me as mayor,” Burnham tells Big Issue North. “Homelessness on this scale should not be an issue in the 21st century yet it is. We should be able to put a roof over the head of everyone who wants one.

“Homelessness is devastating lives and we have to do much more to help. It won’t happen overnight but I am convinced that if we think differently and work together we can make a difference.”

As well as donations to his fund Burnham says he welcomes people donating their time, ideas and goods to help end rough sleeping in Greater Manchester. But last week he expressed his frustration with the public sector – including the 10 Greater Manchester councils – in a letter urging it to come up with more short-term solutions to rough sleeping, such as opening up vacant properties as shelters.

“As mayor I have asked individuals, businesses and the voluntary sector to do more, and they have,” he wrote. “Now it is time for the public sector to increase the urgency with which it responds to homelessness and rough-sleeping.”

That drew a stinging response from Priest in a comment added to the press release announcing the city council’s new measures – “the implication in some quarters that it is not being treated with anything other than the highest priority is wholly misleading”.

Burnham has staked much of his political capital on tackling homelessness, and his ability to bang heads together without having substantial powers will be an acid test of his first term. On Big Issue North’s patch though, mayoral clout only exists in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region.

And even where it does exist, it is down to individual councils and not the mayor to exert pressure on property developers, through the planning process, to fulfil their responsibilities. Last week the Manchester Evening News reported that Manchester had only managed to extract £1.5 million in Section 106 contributions from developers wanting to build in the city in the last year. These sums go towards funding affordable housing and roads. Smaller Salford, by contrast, achieved £6.5 million.

“Unfortunately, the risks and triggers of homelessness exist in every area, which is why it is so crucial that an adequate safety net is in place to give people support when they need it,” says Mathie. “Ultimately, it is not acceptable that people should be homeless or sleeping rough in any of our country’s cities, towns or rural areas.”

Manchester’s response

Manchester City Council says its extra investment of £1.5 million into homelessness services in the last year has helped to fund:

* 90 more beds across the city for rough sleepers

* 33 refurbished bed spaces for female
rough sleepers in the Women’s Direct Access Centre

* £37,000 investment in the Stop, Start, Go employment resettlement hostel in Cheetham Hill

* The redesign of Woodward Court in Ancoats to ensure the quick referral of homeless people in the evenings and weekends, with the reallocation of 14 bed spaces specifically for rough sleepers

* Indoor evening provision – offering food, showers and support and advice – at Centrepoint, in conjunction with charity Coffee for Craig

Government response

A government spokesperson says: “Tackling homelessness is a complex issue with no single solution, but this government is determined to help the most vulnerable in society.

“Our welfare reforms restore fairness to the system with a strong safety net in place to support the most vulnerable, including £24 billion through the Housing Benefit.”

But the government acknowledges there is more to do and has promised £550m by 2020 to implement the Homelessness Reduction Act which will require local housing authorities to help all eligible applicants – rather than just those with a ‘priority need’. It will build on the preventative approach set out in the 2002 Homelessness Act, by requiring public authorities to notify housing authorities when they’re working with people facing homelessness.

“There’s more to do to make sure people always have a roof over their head and ministers will set out further plans shortly, including delivering on our commitment to eliminate rough sleeping entirely.”

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