The people on the streets of the city centre rarely start here. All of Greater Manchester needs to help, writes Cllr Sam Wheeler.
“This girl, she’s only eighteen, she shouldn't be out here.”
In his mid-fifties, with short grey stubble and clean, casual clothes, Mike looks like every other citizen walking through Piccadilly this sunny afternoon. He’s come up to myself and the police officer, Jen, asking if we can help someone.
“I’ve been speaking to her, she needs somewhere to go, its not safe here for her. That’s her there in the green top.” He points to a young woman stood with a few others by one of the benches.”She’s only 18, she's not safe” he repeats, looking at us. “I know, I’m homeless myself.”
He beckons her over, a short woman with brown hair carrying two overflowing bags-for-life. She barely looks eighteen. Jen runs through the questions; what's her name, where’s she from. She’s from Tameside. She’s been at the MRI and, with nowhere to go, has come to the city centre.
She says she has a meeting with a housing officer in Manchester, but not until tomorrow. I ask her why she doesn't go to Tameside Town Hall for help. “Where's that?” she asks. A frustrating few minutes on their website and a call to a friend on their council later we find which of several she should go to. Political borders are arbitrary for those in need, but everyone knows where Manchester's gothic monster is.
Mike and Jen discuss what to do for her tonight and identify a shelter within walking distance. Mike agrees to walk her there and Jen hands him a number in case he has any trouble. She then turns and looks the lass in the eyes. “Stay there tonight, and then go home. Tameside have to look after you.” The girl nods. The two walk off, her still carrying everything she has.
“Is that usual?” I ask Jen.
“People come here from everywhere,” she says, “and the best thing for them is to go home and get help.”
Over the course of the seven hours I'm with the team this is rammed home. We speak to a dozen or so people sat begging or rough sleeping. None are from Manchester. The majority, when questioned, give an address in another borough where they have some form of accommodation. The suitability of that accommodation I can't speak to, but the problems they have couldn't be, and haven’t been, solved simply by offering a bed.
“This is where the drugs are, where they can make some money, sometimes a lot of money, begging, and where people they know are. And there's no sanction, no one stops them.” Jemma, another police officer, turns to me with frustration in her voice, “We’ve not got enough officers to deal with this.”
I speak to a private security guard in a shop around Piccadilly Gardens. He says his firm looks set to pick up more and more business as firms take matters into their own hands in the face of a police force cut to the bone. A small additional cost perhaps for McDonalds or Primark, but crippling for a small business.
I speak to a barber off the Northern Quarter, a big man who says time and again the fire exit to his building is jammed with pallets and sodden duvets. “How can I ask my staff to work here when I know it's not safe?” he asks. “And these do-gooders, they turn up in a van and give out hand-outs. They haven’t got a clue. They don't live here. They're just making themselves feel better. They come in and then zoom off and don’t even clear up their rubbish half the time. They don't have to deal with it every f***ing day.”
We currently have the farce of Manchester ratepayers paying for people who have never lived in Manchester...
Round the corner, a man is given a Section 35 notice that he is to leave the city centre and not re-enter again for 48 hours. From the Street Support app he’s given the name of a charity just across the Irwell in Salford that will feed him and put him up. He refuses. The officers inform him he’ll be arrested. “Arrest me then,” he challenges. The officers do, searching his belongings and coming across enough to add possession. He changes his mind and agrees to go. He trundles off, minus his drugs. He gave an address in Stockport.
The centre of Manchester is the crucible, but it is drawing on a problem from across Greater Manchester. Andy Burnham is right that to even begin to tackle the issues on the streets of the city centre we need an approach across Greater Manchester, and other boroughs need to take proper responsibility. It is not just their turning of a blind eye to people with multiple, complex problems regularly jibbing the tram to Manchester. It is the innumerable cases I have heard from public servants of those with difficult issues being actively encouraged to present at Manchester instead of their home borough.
If it is the case that Trafford, Tameside, Rochdale or any other council cannot provide the services necessary to help people back into mainstream society then I sympathise. The crippling of local government by Westminster over the last eight years has been widespread. And, one supposes, one should take it as a compliment to Manchester’s social services.
Indeed, such is the level of demand in Manchester that people are often housed outside the city. Hence we currently have the farce of Manchester ratepayers paying for people who have never lived in Manchester to be housed in the borough that should have cared for them in them first place.
People are drawn to the centre of Manchester. The transport links, the political framework and above all the money are powerful centripetal forces dragging everyone inwards. But just as it brings in opportunities, it is the place where the potential for exploitation, addiction and violence is greatest. If Manchester is expected to do the heavy lifting on the homelessness crisis, it needs the lion's share of the resources; for homeless services, for street cleaning and maintenance, and above all for policing.
If a framework isn't put in to target money and personnel on the basis of need, then the other chief executives should start being sent bills for the cost of helping the people they have decided are someone else’s problem. They can send the cheques to Manchester Town Hall. If they can't find it, just ask someone in need.
Sam Wheeler is a Manchester native and a Labour councillor for the Piccadilly ward.