A group of homeless people who established a hostel in a vacant doctors’ surgery are facing possession proceedings by NHS Property Limited, who are seeking to evict them. GMLC are providing them with legal representation. On 31st January, a Judge made an order for possession. On Friday 1st February, we successfully applied for a stay, meaning that the homeless people can remain inside until a decision will be made at a later hearing.
Their spirit, common sense and commitment to basic human dignity is inspiring and it has been an honour to work with them. Importantly, their struggle is not unique: we work with many homeless people who have been wrongly turned away by authorities who have a duty to help them, or homeless people who have felt that they have had no choice but to turn down offers of support that is completely unsuitable for their needs. The Eccles Shelter residents explain that they are supporting each other after being unable to access appropriate support elsewhere.
“We have built a home, a community and we feel safe. We think community working is the way forwards to genuinely help and support homeless people” – Eccles Shelter residents
“We are helping each other to rebuild our lives”
In November 2018, homeless people and volunteers created a hostel, known as The Eccles Shelter, in a doctor’s surgery that had been vacant for nine years. Local community members and organisations such as the Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre, Salford Street Support and the Salvation Army have given food parcels and daily support.
Residents have been provided with beds, the flu-jab and support from a substance misuse support organisation who visited the Shelter. Other residents and volunteers have assisted others with benefits, registration for doctors and dentists, registering bank accounts, finding employment and securing move-on accommodation. The hostel has liaised with the local council and other agencies, including arranging for a fire safety inspection.
“We feel that we are the lost people”
After taking the residents to court in order to evict them, NHS Property Limited stated, “There is alternative accommodation. […] We do hope that the occupants will take up the offer of accommodation from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s homeless team.” Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has pledged ‘a Bed Every Night’ for homeless people. However, in an open letter to the Salford City Council Homeless Team and to the ‘Bed Every Night’ initiative, residents of The Eccles Shelter explained their frustrations with trying to access assistance.
“Some of us have turned down offers of accommodation due to it being for a few nights with no indication or explanation of where we will go after the few nights offered. As we hope you can appreciate, this is daunting and we are anxious and unnerved by the unknown of what will happen next.
Some of us have turned down two nights in a bed and breakfast as we were given a bus pass and a fast food voucher and sent on our own to find a bed and breakfast on the other side of Greater Manchester. Again, we were also unaware of what would happen in the nights that followed the two nights offered.
Some of us have accepted placements in the Narrowgate night shelter but due to alcohol issues we have lost our place. Before we were sent there we explained to you fully that we were alcohol dependent but one of the rules at the Narrowgate is that no resident must be intoxicated when coming onto the premises and no alcohol on the premises. We were not offered any alcohol support and not medicated to be able to stop drinking. The punishment for us was that we must go back onto the streets for seven days.
We feel that you do not understand fully the extent of some of our issues and we feel that we are the lost people.” – The Eccles Shelter’s open letter to Salford City Council Homeless Team and to the ‘Bed Every Night’ initiative
These difficulties are not unique: data obtained by the Guardian demonstrated that local authorities across the country, including Manchester, had purchased one-way tickets for homeless people, to move them to other areas.
Through our casework, we have seen homeless people facing similar barriers and some have been homeless or rough sleeping for months before getting the advice they need to enforce their rights to accommodation from the Council. A GMLC housing casework volunteer recently accompanied an 18 year old care leaver to make a homelessness application and witnessed the Homelessness Department refuse to let him into the service because he was not pregnant and didn’t have children. After we issued a claim for Judicial Review, the Council not only agreed to accept a homelessness application, but also accepted that he was owed a full homeless duty.
This is the practice of “gatekeeping”, where Councils turn people away without accepting a homelessness application or offering accommodation and assistance. It has always been a problem but the problem grows when the number of homeless people increases and Councils, as a result of central government cuts, simply don’t have the money or resources to meet the demand. It is, and always has been, a particular problem for homeless people who are vulnerable but who may not meet specific criteria.
“We are concerned that there a lot more people currently sleeping on the streets or going from shelter to shelter who also shouldn’t be there, because they have a legal right to something better and those legal rights are being denied” – GMLC Housing Solicitor Kathleen Cosgrove
Everyone must have a right to a secure home
GMLC supports the ambition of the Bed Every Night initiative, and we are pleased that people have been able to access support through the scheme. However, we fight for people whose legal rights which should not be negotiable, and it should not be acceptable for people to fall through the cracks. For many, access to free, specialist legal advice and representation is the only way they will be listened to and these rights will be enforced.
We know Councils are hard pressed. We know the reasons why. But homeless people don’t just deserve charity, they deserve legal rights to a secure home. And where they do have these rights, they must not be denied.