8 DECEMBER 2016
It’s the increasing numbers that shocks people,” says Lily Axworthy, 25, from the Greater Manchester Winter Night Shelter (GMWNS). “I walk to work and see eight or nine people sleeping in doorways. There’s people sleeping in the car park where I leave my car. And that’s only what you can see. People are under bridges, in parks, in tents.” The story of GMWNS – set up by Lily, a charity worker, in 2015 – could be a snapshot of poverty in modern Britain. The scale is spiralling, austerity has fostered it, and – miles away from ministers in Westminster – it’s a team of volunteers left to pick up the pieces.
In January, the shelter ran as a small pilot project to help a few dozen street sleepers. “The need was obvious,” Lily says simply – and six weeks ago, the shelter began a six-month stretch to get hundreds of people through the cold weather. GMWNS gets no statutory funding. All money comes from charity, grants and the public (even the camp beds are donated), and it is staffed by volunteers – almost 200 of them: nurses, solicitors, teachers, students and ex-street sleepers.
The shelter itself is seven different “donated” venues – mainly churches – that open nightly on rotation through the week (it keeps costs and red tape down). Twelve beds are set up in each of them. Lily knows that’s nowhere near enough for the number of rough sleepers in Manchester. “But it’s 12 more than there would be otherwise,” she says. The youngest men they see are in their early 20s (“With the cuts to housing benefit, I think we’ll get more soon,” Lily says) but ages range up to late 60s. “They’re waiting for the pensions, hoping that will be some income,” she says.
What hits hard is that the men coming to the winter shelter aren’t people who have been homeless for 10 or 20 years. It’s that so many are new now. As Lily puts it: “They never thought in a million years they’d be homeless.” Few give details about why they’re here. Embarrassment and shame are common. “They say ‘I’ve fallen on hard times’,” Lily says. “The thing is, the welfare system is designed for hard times. And it’s not functioning now.” Many she sees have been hit by benefit and housing problems, high private rents (“they’re evicted for rent arrears and can’t afford anywhere else”), relationship breakdown and the lack of social housing.
At the same time as it’s becoming harder for people to keep a roof over their head, the services that once would have helped them – debt advice, mental health centres or mediation support (be it between landlords and tenants or families) – have been cut as well. “They just don’t exist any more,” Lily says. “Your local Citizens Advice isn’t there so you have to go to a neighbouring city, but there’s twice as many people queuing who need help.”
It fell several degrees below freezing in Manchester twice last week, and local charities and the council are now focused on finding ways to get rough sleepers inside. There are no state-run shelters in the city, and temporary accommodation services are full. Instead, outreach workers are now using communal spaces of sheltered accommodation to house people for the night: living rooms, sofas, wherever they can fit. “Just to keep people alive,” Lily says. This is Britain’s homelessness crisis: where a cocktail of cuts is simultaneously swelling the numbers of street sleepers while giving them, in Lily’s words, “nowhere to go”. More than a quarter of a million people in England are now homeless, according to figures by Shelter this month. In the last fortnight, three rough sleepers have died – two of the men were found in a derelict building in Manchester, the other in his sleeping bag in a Birmingham car park.
The nights are only going to get colder and Lily tells me that, as it is, GMWNS is already full every night. Despite the strain, its aim is always to provide “more than a bed”. That means practical help: a local charity, the Booth Centre, gives out benefit advice and housing support, and in turn refers its own users to the shelter. It offers little human touches too: volunteers greet whoever comes to the shelter with a cup of tea, and everyone eats a meal together.
As we finish talking, Lily is planning Christmas gifts for anyone who needs the shelter over the holiday. She has just helped two men get a bed for the night. Both are middle-aged and have worked all their lives. They lost their jobs a while ago, and without enough savings to get by, they started to sleep on the street. Neither of their families know they’re homeless now, she says. They don’t want to burden them.
“It makes you realise this can happen to anyone,” Lily says. “We’re all one pay cheque away from it.”