The end of winter may be in sight but the future remains cold and bleak for rough sleepers in northern towns and cities
The end of winter may be in sight but the future remains cold and bleak for rough sleepers in northern towns and cities
Hendrix Lancaster was dubious when he saw the government’s figures from the national rough sleeper count last month. He works with homeless people in Manchester after co-founding charity Coffee4Craig six years ago, and believes the 123 rough sleepers recorded in the city centre is a big under-estimate.
“In comparison to what we see on a nightly basis I would have estimated that they are around a third of the real figures,” he says. “Discounting all the other boroughs who come into the city centre I would put the actual number at around 300-350.”
“In the last 12 months we’ve had a 40 per cent increase in working people at our food bank.”
Coffee4Craig was set up in 2013 as a service to give out hot drinks to people on the streets. When Lancaster started the charity with his wife Risha, they simply wanted to honour Risha’s late brother Craig, who died from a drug overdose earlier that year. But the couple soon realised that cups of coffee weren’t enough to support the growing number of rough sleepers on Manchester’s streets, and the charity has since grown to keep up with the crisis. It now runs a food bank and a nightly drop-in service where homeless people can access showers, hot food, medical support and referrals.
Since Coffee4Craig was founded, the official number of rough sleepers in Greater Manchester, which includes 10 boroughs, rose from 70 to 268 in 2017, before dropping back slightly to 241 last year.
The national rough sleeper count takes place every year on one night in November, with local authorities submitting data to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Figures are independently verified and the MHCLG subsequently publishes nationwide data early the following year.
These figures give the best indication of the numbers of rough sleepers on the streets, but it is generally accepted that the actual number is likely to be higher. As long ago as 2007 Big Issue North exposed concerns over the accuracy of the count, but then the city of Manchester’s rough sleeper tally was only seven. Lancaster and others fear the low number is used by decision makers to decide on funding for tackling homelessness.
“I think everybody in the sector knows it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the reality,” he says. “It doesn’t take into account the people who walk around the city all night and sleep in the day, because it’s safer in the day. There are also a lot where you will never find them.”
Lancaster says last year’s count took place during a period when some homeless people were housed using winter provision put in place by mayor Andy Burnham’s A Bed Every Night initiative, launched at the beginning of November.
“Over the cold weather we exceeded 123 in terms of people who accessed cold weather accommodation and shelters [through Coffee4Craig], but obviously during that period of the count taking place you had some provision in place for A Bed Every Night, you had the rolling church night shelters offering places. A couple of new squats opened in Manchester city centre and Salford that people from Manchester have moved out into. The numbers don’t add up.”
Manchester has proved to be the capital of rough sleeping in the north and Burnham has staked much political capital and some of his salary on reducing it. Of the recent drop in rough sleeping in Greater Manchester, he said the “tide is turning” but the figure was “still completely unacceptable”.
But almost all other northern cities recorded an increase on last year’s figures. In Leeds the figure was 33, compared with 28 the year before and six in 2010. In Sheffield there were 26 rough sleepers in 2018 compared with 17 in 2017.
But rough sleeping is simply the most visible form of homelessness. Sheffield City Council told Big Issue North there were 481 households accepted as homeless in 2017-2018, and over the past six months the council has been working with the government’s Rough Sleepers Initiative to reduce the number of people who are at risk of street homelessness.
In Liverpool, the number of rough sleepers fell by more than half from 33 in 2017 to 15 in November last year. It’s a sharp decline, but the council has had its work cut out.
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson told Big Issue North how the work Liverpool City Council does is often a case of prevention rather than cure. The council spends £11 million a year from its £176 million council tax earnings to fund services to help homelessness, but a large chunk of that, around £4 million, is used to help people who are at risk of being evicted from private rental properties.
The council offers discretionary housing payments to people struggling to pay the rent and offers grants to people who have been sanctioned under Universal Credit, but Anderson says the local authority is filling a gap left by central government.
“We support people here more than any other city in the country,” says Anderson. “I think Bristol is the only city that matches us and they get £38 million more in council tax than we do.
“We give them £90 a week grants, all of which comes out of the council’s budget, but it prevents people from becoming homeless.”
At the end of 2017 the council opened Labre House, a dedicated night shelter run by the council and local charity the Whitechapel Centre, which offers accommodation every night of the year and support to everyone, regardless of their background, even though he was warned that the council was breaking government rules if it did so without assuring itself of people’s immigration status. He says he has a “zero tolerance” approach to rough sleeping.
“What we try to do is give people hope. We want to give people accommodation but we also want to give them support and a job, so we might be successful 70 per cent of the time, or even 50 per cent of the time, but it’s better than no success at all.
“We had a situation recently where a young girl died in a tent. There were syringes around her. She’d clearly overdosed. She was in the prison system at Christmas and she wasn’t in the city centre – she was on a piece of wasteland not far from the city centre. So we need to watch what’s happening and make sure people are in accommodation and getting the support they need.
“That’s what I mean about zero tolerance. It’s not just about creating public space prevention orders. If that’s one tool, because you don’t want people using pop-up tents and begging and feeding their addiction, it’s also about trying to make that difference and helping them so you are saving their lives. That’s how we approach it.”
Last year legislation to prevent homelessness was launched through the Homelessness Reduction Act. It says local authorities must take “all reasonable steps” to prevent homelessness and that they have a legal duty to provide meaningful support to those at risk.
Homelessness charity Shelter supports the legislation but says its laudable aims will be undermined without improvements to wider housing and welfare policy.
Liverpool City Council is an example of a local authority working hard to keep people off the streets, but Anderson says many of the issues that force people into precarious situations come from the top down.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to win because of the pressures that people are under and the government’s approach in not supporting people and not seeing the bigger picture,” he says. “They have policies like Universal Credit and all of the things they do: lack of support for health and mental health in particular; lack of support for councils to do outreach work. All of those things have a huge detrimental effect on how we manage the situation, but we’ve got to keep trying with new initiatives and new ways of doing things.”
Lancaster is navigating in an environment where his clientele is constantly changing. In the beginning Coffee4Craig was about offering a friendly cup of coffee to a person sitting on the streets. Now, the charity’s food bank is accessed by people experiencing all forms of homelessness, from sofa surfing to living in temporary accommodation, but Lancaster says he has seen a significant increase in the number of working people asking for support.
“There have been a lot of changes in a really short space of time,” says Lancaster. “A lot of cuts, a lot of staffing cuts on the front line, a lot of cuts to governmental services like direct access accommodation, social housing. There’s something like 5,000 people on the waiting list for social housing in Manchester.
“In the last 12 months we’ve had about a 60 per cent increase in people accessing our food bank and about a 40 per cent increase in working people accessing our food bank. We had a massive increase when sanctioning came into play. Again Universal Credit spiked our use, but our staffing hasn’t gone up.”
While charities and local councils work to end street homelessness, the sad fact is that rough sleepers are dying on our streets. Official figures released by the ONS for the first time at the end of last year found 597 homeless people died in the UK in 2017, with 50 of them from Greater Manchester. Lancaster says there needs to be more accountability for their deaths.
“I have known rough sleepers who have died in the past 12 months – some through inevitable circumstances like hypothermia and drug overdoses, a lot through malnutrition, self-neglect, sepsis, heart attacks through substance misuse.
“If you took a high school where you might have 1,000 students, if 50 of those students died in a one-year period there would be absolute uproar. There would be investigations, tribunals, head teachers would be sacked. And yet 50 of our most vulnerable, most marginalised individuals pass away in one city and nobody is called to question over it.”
Ciara Leeming reports on controversial Public Space Protection Orders
Protest is being urged against proposed measures that could see people in Manchester being fined for begging and putting up tents.
Manchester City Council is consulting on the introduction of a city centre Public Space Protection Order, which it says would make the environment safer and more welcoming.
If approved, the order would ban certain acts within designated areas – including aggressive begging, putting up tents, blocking doorways after being asked to move, public urination and the discarding of needles.
Critics of the orders – now in place in more than 50 towns and cities – say they disproportionately target and criminalise homeless people. Human rights organisations including Liberty oppose them but local authorities insist they simply deal with anti-social behaviour.
The Tenants Union has now called on the public to campaign against Manchester’s plans, which it calls an “injustice”.
A spokesman said: “These proposals risk punishing any homeless person seeking shelter from the elements or simply taking up space on the pavement.
“Fining and prosecuting Manchester’s most vulnerable people is like something from the Victorian era of the workhouse. It is only going to make the problem worse, not make things better.”
PSPOs are already in place in Doncaster and Rochdale, and are under consideration in Bolton, Wakefield, Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield and Darlington. In Chester, an order was amended following public protests, resulting in the removal of rough sleeping and begging from the proscribed activities.
Some PSPOs, including one in Leeds, focus on behaviour such as public drinking and drug taking and do not cover begging.
Introduced in 2014, PSPOs last for three years and anyone who breaches one can be fined £100 – with potential costs rising to £1,000 if a case goes to court. Repeat transgressors can be given criminal behaviour orders, the violation of which can result in prison time.
Concern about their impact led the Home Office to issue guidance in 2017 to say PSPOs should not be used to target homeless people or rough sleeping. But there is no requirement for agencies to report to government on their use – meaning there is no scrutiny of their impact on the ground.
Dr Vicky Heap and Dr Jill Dickinson, of Sheffield Hallam University, have written: “Therefore, PSPOs provide the opportunity for councils to cleanse public spaces of those who do not conform to the local social or spatial norms they create.
“This divides communities between those who are considered deserving of inhabiting those spaces and those who are not…”
Nigel Murphy, deputy leader of Manchester City Council, said: “While this would not be a magic wand making these issues disappear, it would give the council and police an extra tool to tackle these behaviours. PSPO powers would not be used indiscriminately – only where they were the most appropriate option.
“It’s important to note that these restrictions are targeted at specific anti-social behaviours, some quite general in nature, not at particular groups of people.”