Manchester's Banned Housing Protest

A homeless camp in Manchester has been shut down by the council after protesting for adequate housing. The group of approximately 30 rough sleepers and campaigners occupied three areas of the city centre in succession: first Albert Square, then St Peter’s Square and finally St Anne’s Square. Each time the town hall went to court to have the protesters evicted. The final time, the town hall secured an injunction preventing anyone from pitching a tent without permission in the entire city centre.

The protest began on April 15th, following a shock rise in homelessness in Manchester. According to charity estimates, at least 80 people are sleeping rough in the area, compared to just seven in 2010. This is part of a wider trend of rising numbers of evictions — budget cuts to housing mean that over 80 people a day are losing their homes in the Greater Manchester area. The Manchester council has also slashed its budget for homelessness provision this year, meaning for many people the precarious tightrope back into accommodation is being cut at both ends.

The protesters, who set up the camp with tents and banners calling for action from the council, were evicted multiple times but were able to secure accommodation for some of their members. But during the protest they continued to wait for authorities to address the wider issue of the housing crisis. Spokespeople for the protesters made the point that while homelessness has risen dramatically in the last year, the council’s budget for homeless provision has fallen. They also suggested that the national government should pass a law similar to the legislation in Wales that compels the government to be proactive about preventing homelessness. The protesters also worked with local shops in the city centre to ensure they weren’t disruptive or damaging to local businesses.

The council’s response to the protest was that it was disruptive to residents and businesses, anti-social and intimidating to the public. They also claimed that officers met with protesters and offered them support on numerous occasions, but the support was turned down. Of course, any temporary shelter or aid would not solve the long-term problem of the housing crisis, which was what the protest was centered around. The protest has been estimated to have cost the council £100,000 in terms of policing.

The council managed to secure a blanket injunction against pitching a tent anywhere in the city centre, which if contravened could result in a prison sentence of two years or a fine of £5,000 or both. Ben Taylor, a solicitor representing the protesters free of charge, called the measure “draconian” and said it would impinge on the protester’s civil liberties. I wonder what the wider implications will be for people who are homeless, whether this will create a precedent of moving on people who are forced to sleep rough. It reminds me of the Oxford City Council’s proposal for a Public Spaces Protection Order that would effectively ban begging and rough sleeping. A new draft of the PSPO was recently considered but deferred amidst concerns that it was unlawful. Councils are suffering from budget cuts from the government, but banning people from rough sleeping when that is their only option won’t really solve anything. A solution would necessarily have to address the housing crisis and the holes in our public services.

What will happen to the protesters now? Where will they go? One of the youngest protesters, 17 year old Amber, told the Manchester Evening News about how she was abandoned by her mother at 13, had to flee the children’s home she was put in because of theft and violence and ended up on the streets. There she was too scared to sleep at night because men tried to drag her away and molest her. She said she only felt safe when she joined the protesters in the camp. I can’t imagine her situation becoming better as a result of the ban. The deeper injustice here is that if those who are homeless aren’t allowed to form groups and support one another, they not only face individual hardships but are weakened as a political voice with a story to tell. But the story must be told until society starts to listen.

At New Hope we are proud to work alongside local councils to better understand and serve the needs of the people who are homeless or vulnerably housed in Watford. We’re pleased that our local councils are taking steps to address this issue, and hope that other councils and charity groups will work more closely together in the future to tackle the generally worsening situation of homelessness in the UK.

Alex Charlton