If you work in the city centre of Manchester you will be familiar with the swelling ranks of homeless people who sit beside every bin, outside coffee shops and in the doorways of empty shops. According to Shelter, the number of homeless people in Greater Manchester had risen to 3,292 by last Christmas with 2,000 of them in the city centre.
From my warm and spacious office in the Northern Quarter if I walk down Market Street I pass on average 15 homeless people. These are not people pretending to be homeless to improve their chances of begging (a surprisingly commonly held view) and they are not selling the Big Issue. These are people for whom life is genuinely hard, food is scarce and they have very few options and even less hope.
Christmas was heartbreaking as shoppers, laden with goodies, trudged past desperate people equally laden but with filthy sleeping bags and damp pieces of cardboard. But the weather over the Christmas period was relatively mild, it’s the cold that really highlights the homeless issue in Manchester.
On these freezing days you see small camps of tents in the doorways and yesterday there was a shoeless man in his thirties, standing in a puddle with his eyes closed, rocking back and forth. It was a new low even by my desensitized standards.
The reasons for homelessness, according to local authority research, break down into three main categories: a relationship breakdown and sadly that includes domestic violence, loss of a tenancy or an unwillingness of family and friends to accommodate them or, a combination of all three.
That’s achingly obvious, but that’s not the story. For most there is no single event that results in sudden homelessness, instead it’s a creep of life happenings, wrong turns, bad decisions, mental health issues and for some, rotten luck.
These life problems grow in a backdrop of unemployment, poverty, a lack of affordable housing and unhelpful housing policies, the structure of the benefit system and wider problems including the closure of long-term psychiatric hospitals.
So, people, what’s the solution? If elected, mayoral candidate Andy Burnham is going to donate 15% of his salary to the homeless problem. Working on a £100K salary that’s about £4.55 per homeless person, per year. That’s a coffee and a muffin every year still at least he’s putting it front and centre as an issue but he’s going to have to rally the troops.
Homelessness is a housing issue, a welfare issue, a mental health issue, a healthcare issue, a retailer issue, a commuter issue, a big business issues, a small business issue and it’s your issue.
There are lots of guides to what business and individuals can do to help. Give it a Google and join the campaign or just start small. Starbucks does a suspended coffee scheme so when you buy yourself a coffee you can pay for a coffee for a homeless person and they come in when they need and want it and claim it. Nice. Or donate a coat to a homeless charity – the mustardtree.org in Ancoats is a place that makes a difference.
Movements often start small and this issue is going to take genuine people power to crack. One well intentioned Mayoral candidate or a little girl handing out home-baked cupcakes can’t do it alone but they are a start. Let’s all get going and crack this together.