There is a national housing crisis in the UK. The causes of this are numerous: lack of affordable housing for sale, rising rents, welfare cuts (the bedroom tax and benefit sanctions), to name the main contributors.
The result of this is a rise in the homeless population, and in particular rough sleepers. According to the charity Homeless Link, the number of rough sleepers in England has risen by 47 per cent since 2010. Like most urban areas, Manchester has seen a rise in the number of people living on the street.
Mancunians have witnessed the presence of tents in public spaces. One emergency homeless shelter, known as the “Ark”, was established by homeless people, for homeless people, on Oxford Road, Manchester – the heart of the city’s university scene.
The Ark began with one young man, Ryan McPhee, sleeping in a cardboard box under the Mancunian Way flyover in early summer 2015. One of his friends joined him and, by mid-August, the Ark was offering emergency shelter to about 10 people in tents. They had built a windbreaker from wooden pallets around a concrete support, had a generator, portable loos sponsored by the Unite union, and were providing clothing, food and drinks.
Donations of money and resources helped the Ark to survive. The ethos was very much about self-help and being proactive about ending homelessness, with an expectation that anyone using the shelter facilities would endeavour to do what was required to get themselves off the streets. The Ark was not a protest against housing policy but a facility that arose owing to a demand for emergency shelter and support.
However, Manchester City Council threatened residents of the Ark with a two-year prison sentence or £5,000 fine. This was because the structure breached a city-wide injunction gained by the council to prohibit the erection of tents and temporary accommodation on the streets of Manchester.
Who owns land is an important issue in this case. The land that the Ark occupied is owned by Manchester City Council, but is leased on a long-term basis by Manchester Metropolitan University.
The response from MMU to a homeless shelter on its premises has been mixed. Management initially took a relaxed approach to the Ark’s existence, until mid-September, when – days before Freshers’ Week – an eviction took place. This of course did little to remedy the homeless crisis, and the Ark set up camp again yards away from where it had first been located.
A statement released by MMU said “despite the measures undertaken last Friday, a number of protestors continue to occupy parts of our Estate. In addition to this, it has come to light that some members of staff have been subjected to incidents of verbal abuse and intimidation from protestors. It is completely unacceptable to me that colleagues should encounter any form of threatening behaviour whilst carrying out their work. We have also recorded vindictive personal attacks by the protestors on University staff through social media.”
The university management claimed that the Ark impacted on “the safety and well-being of students and staff”, and that MMU was granted a possession order and an injunction. Presumably, it was the safety of staff and students that prompted the employment of a security firm to police the area adjacent to the Ark and campus buildings.
MMU asserts that it is “committed to working with the appropriate agencies to ensure that every measure is taken to meet genuine needs and alleviate the problem of homelessness”.
The response from MMU students has been to establish a group called “students acting in solidarity with the homeless”, or SASH. The group has organised a number of protests and started a petition. Members of the group went to the Ark in early October to have a barbecue with the residents, and many MMU students and alumni have voiced concern and outrage at the way their university has handled the issue of rough sleepers.
In an open letter to Malcolm Press, the vice-chancellor of MMU, they state: “The Ark always stated that it was not a protest – your insistence in using that word in correspondence with those living there is inflammatory as it is suggestive that The Ark was a political statement rather than being born out of necessity…By gaining a possession order and injunction against The Ark, you have neither helped nor engaged with these vulnerable people.”
Staff at MMU have also expressed unease about the situation. A letter to the vice-chancellor from MMU University and College Union members asked for the university to, among other things, “halt any future evictions should rough sleepers appear on MMU land/premises again…[and] set up a research project that works with homeless people and other stakeholders on Oxford Road to find positive solutions to homelessness in our city”.
The Ark was evicted for a second time on 20 October, prompting UCU to state: “MMU clearly has a commitment to addressing homelessness as the recent creation of [this website] indicates. Whilst this may be useful for anyone wishing to access information on homeless charities, it does little to offer real, concrete solutions. MMU is hosting events for the Homeless Film Festival in November. This is encouraging but does smack of NIMBYism given the recent eviction of the Ark.”
Fortunately, this story does have a happy ending (for the immediate future at least) as two ex-professional footballers came to the rescue.
The national media reported on Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs allowing rough sleepers to use their vacant building the old Stock Exchange in Manchester city centre for the winter months. It seems they have inspired Manchester City Council to identify unused buildings they could similarly open to the homeless in this crisis. The appearance of tents on Market Street (the main pedestrianised shopping street in the city) no doubt also had an impact.
Ryan McPhee and the rough sleepers whom he was supporting at the Ark have now taken up residence at the Stock Exchange, or as it is affectionately known now, the “sock exchange”.
This article was written by a member of staff at Manchester Metropolitan University.