By Jez Green, Facilitator of the Manchester Homelessness Charter.
Although I have worked for Mustard Tree for eight years, since November 2015 my time has been seconded to the city, to work across all sectors and to facilitate an exciting new piece of work, the Manchester Homelessness Charter.
Incredibly, as part of this work, I have been asked to participate in a cultural exchange orchestrated by the global arts and homelessness movement, “With One Voice.” It involves a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from Sunday 17 July for one week to take part in a “Cultural Olympiad” (in anticipation of the Rio Olympics in August) during which various homeless arts projects will perform pop-up events and workshops across the city. Rio has over 6000 homeless people, and a growing number of arts projects. Much of this has been thanks to the work of With One Voice, which facilitated the sharing of good practice between the UK, Brazil and other nations over recent years.
Here in the UK, arts provision within the homelessness sector is relatively strong. In Mustard Tree alone we host a drama group, art classes, music production, digital storytelling and more. Manchester’s other homelessness services provide similar activities, along with choirs, bands, photography projects and so on. This good practice has been shared with various projects in Rio and Sao Paulo; and in return, we have been learning a great deal about Brazil’s “Homeless People’s Movement”, which exists in both cities. The movement grew out of a terrible tragedy – the massacre of a number of homeless people in 2004. As a result, a human rights movement formed for people living on the streets.
In Sao Paulo, thanks to a progressive city mayor, this evolved into the “Homeless People’s Forum”, a body that meets to discuss homelessness issues. The forum consists of an equal number of homeless people and local officials, who work co-productively to decide policies and create services for those living on the streets. A previous delegation from Manchester to Sao Paulo and Rio last November came back inspired by this work, which has subsequently informed much of the work of the Homelessness Charter.
Homelessness in Manchester, like anywhere, is a complex problem with many factors at work. The last 18 months or so have seen a sharp rise in rough sleeping and in the more hidden forms of homelessness, with several influencing factors. Welfare reform, bedroom tax and an increase in the use of sanctions mean that many people have built up rent arrears and been evicted. Changes to the welfare system also mean that many European migrants are no longer entitled to benefits, which has resulted in many becoming destitute. Over a quarter of Manchester’s rough sleepers fall into this category and, with no recourse to public funds, the council is not allowed to house them.
As with most local authorities in the UK, there have been huge cuts to public services, which both coincided with and contributed to the rise in homelessness in Manchester. The loss of various frontline services and around 150 hostel beds in the year that homelessness grew most sharply meant even fewer places for those who were becoming newly homeless.
Manchester also has some more unique factors at work. A number of protests took place last year, led by activists who pitched tents outside the town hall. They were moved on, but set up other camps around the city and increasingly attracted homeless people to join them. These encampments provide a sense of community for rough sleepers, although the health impacts of sleeping rough remain. Young people in particular have been attracted to these camps, where conditions are frequently unsafe and drug use is rife. It has also created a more sustainable street culture, which works against the desire to move people into accommodation where they can better deal with other issues.
These last 18 months or so have represented a crisis in homelessness in Manchester. Nevertheless, there have also been a number of factors enabling us to tackle this situation more creatively, and to turn it into an opportunity to work very differently. The size and complexity of the problem has forced both the council and local charities to admit that we cannot solve the issue alone. A significant increase in working together, and involving new partners in the work, is the only way we can tackle the issue. The Manchester Homelessness Charter is the banner we have created for this growing partnership work aimed at tackling homelessness.
The last With One Voice exchange to Brazil, in November last year and including four people from Manchester, came at a crucial time. All four were profoundly impacted by the work of the Homeless People’s Movement, and have been able to translate their learning from Rio and Sao Paulo into the work of the Manchester Homelessness Charter. It has ensured that our focus has been on giving those affected by homelessness a genuine voice in the city, as well as ongoing opportunities for input into the design and development of homelessness services.
Creating the charter began with a lengthy consultation with people who are homeless and those working in the sector. We asked not only about the values we should work by, but also about the key issues and barriers faced by those who are homeless. After much condensing and editing, the charter was written as a vision to end homelessness in Manchester and a set of values to work by.
This learning also led to the creation of ten action groups, focused on priority issues. Essential to each group is a strong mix of professionals and those with lived experience of homelessness, using a co-productive model of working. For example, the action group seeking to increase the emergency accommodation in the city has already produced a set of minimum standards for such accommodation, created jointly by people with experience of staying in shelters and the professionals responsible for providing them.
The charter asks local businesses, public sector organisations, charities, faith groups, institutions and individuals to make a pledge. Pledges are another way of translating the values of the charter into action. We secured some significant pledges from major organisations for our launch event in May, and more have continued to be made since.
Now that the work of the charter is underway, it feels very exciting to be invited to participate in the upcoming With One Voice exchange visit to Rio. I am confident that I will be inspired there, both by the phenomenal array of work happening through the arts, and also by meeting members of the Homeless People’s Movement first hand. Our priority for the work in Manchester is to develop the ways in which we gather people with personal experience of homelessness and work with them to create new, innovative and lasting solutions to Manchester’s homelessness problem. I can’t wait to see what other learning I can bring back from Rio to Manchester.