By Ciara Leeming
This piece originally featured in Big Issue North magazine and is re-posted here with permission
A group of homeless people have found themselves a roof over their heads, stability and even employment. But it’s a squat and so all that they have achieved is under threat
Moves to close an impromptu homeless shelter would strip residents of their dignity and stability, it has been claimed.
Stacey Martindale, who until a few days ago lived at the Eccles Shelter, says the building has helped residents to move forward with their lives – with several going on to find work and alternative housing.
“We have two amazing support workers coming in, who bring rules and structure to the place.”
NHS Property Services, which owns the building – a former GP surgery that has been vacant for almost a decade – has spent the winter fighting to evict the 15-strong group, many of whom had previously been sleeping rough.
They are now waiting anxiously to learn their fate after a judge stayed the case earlier this month, giving them a temporary reprieve.
Martindale, 32, who has just been put in temporary accommodation but still spends time at the shelter, told Big Issue North: “This place offers a level of stability that many of us wouldn’t otherwise have. There are people in here who are willing and capable – they just haven’t been given the opportunities, for various reasons.
“We’ve got a lad in here who has been working full time since Christmas, and he’s been able to hold that job down because of having somewhere to stay. Another resident has just found a local labouring job.
“We’ve got people who arrived straight out of the doorways, holding a single plastic bag, but now, thanks to donations from the public, they have managed to get some belongings – a few pairs of jeans, shoes and boxer shorts. These things make them feel a bit more human again. It doesn’t feel fair to strip them of their humanity all over again.”
The day we visited the squat, we met a grandfather who had spent several months sleeping on Market Street in Manchester before making his way to Eccles. A young man told how he had been fending for himself since running away from a children’s home aged 14, while another had previously been sofa surfing in between doing seasonal work on fairgrounds.
Martindale arrived at the shelter within a few weeks of it opening in November, having fled domestic violence and sent her teenage son to live with her mother. Rent arrears built up during this time prevented her being able to access help across the border in Trafford, where she had lived. As an arrival from a neighbouring borough she was ineligible for help from Salford Council. And the fact she has a dog made it difficult to find a place in an official homeless hostel.
She said: “I heard this place asking for donations of dog food from the public so I knew they’d allow me to bring a dog. When I arrived I was one of only two women and it was very daunting, but after a few days it settled down. We’ve got a good bunch of lads here and have become like a family. We have two amazing support workers coming in every day, who bring rules and structure to the place.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham pledged A Bed Every Night for homeless people throughout the winter months but not everyone is eligible or suited to the approach, which expects many participants to re-register daily and can send them many miles away and to different places each day. Some shelter residents tried the scheme but felt isolated, while others did not qualify.
Martindale is one of the lucky ones. She has now been found a temporary flat by the programme’s support workers but could find herself back on the streets when the funding ends on 31 March.
In Eccles at least, a grassroots coalition of local volunteers and agencies has joined forces to work in partnership with homeless people to try to tackle the problem.
Salford Street Support – which receives no funding and is made up of concerned local residents, some of whom are themselves out of work – offers daily advice and help to the shelter’s residents.
Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre has acted as an independent mediator between the group and the council, and has laundry facilities they can use.
Donations of food and clothing from the Salvation Army and local community members have helped the centre’s occupants get through the winter.
Residents have been provided with beds, the flu jab and support from a substance misuse support organisation that visited the Eccles Shelter. Volunteers and fellow residents have assisted others with applying for benefits, registration for doctors and dentists, registering bank accounts, finding jobs and securing move-on accommodation. The hostel has liaised with the local council and other agencies, including arranging for an independent fire safety inspection.
Salford UCRC development manager Alec McFadden said: “The idea of offering a bed every night is a step forward but to send someone with mental health issues to Rochdale for one night and then to Manchester city centre another night is no good.
“Salford Council is issuing birth certificates to homeless people who need ID but where do they keep this if they have nowhere to live?
“We’ve got a little community here and it’s working. Stacey and the other shelter residents now have clothes and possessions but need somewhere to put them. What we would really like to see is for this building to be brought into the A Bed Every Night scheme.
“We keep being told by officials that the people in this shelter are too comfortable there. We say make the other places better then.”
NHS Property Services, a private company established to deal with the NHS estate, plans to sell the building.
Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) is providing shelter residents with legal representation in their fight to stay on. On 31 January a county court judge ordered their removal within five days but the following day GMLC successfully applied for a stay, meaning a decision would be made at a later hearing.
GMLC solicitor Kathleen Cosgrove said: “The decision to stay the eviction gives the Eccles Shelter a chance to continue their fight to be allowed to defend the proceedings and for their evidence to be heard before a final decision is made. At this stage this is all we are asking for. We are hopeful that the NHS may agree, but if not our appeal application will be listed for a further hearing… It’s in the hands of the NHS and the court.”
GMLC development worker Roz Burgin added: “The A Bed Every Night scheme is a great start which shows ambition we can all support, but the criteria for access and the type of provision available means that many homeless people remain excluded.
“People with complex needs can’t always take a bed in a shared room with strangers, a chair in a reception area or unsupported bed and breakfast many miles away.
“We need to admit that we have a long way to go, and homeless people and their communities need to be at the forefront of the fight to end rough sleeping and homelessness.”
A spokesperson for NHS Property Services said: “This building was broken into and occupied without our consent. We had requested that the occupants vacate the building as soon as possible and liaised with the relevant authorities to source alternative accommodation in November 2018.
“Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s homeless team at the time confirmed that there is alternative accommodation immediately available for the occupants within Greater Manchester and have been on site to support them.
“Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Services have deemed this property unsafe for residential use in its current form. Therefore we were left with little option other than to instruct our legal team to proceed with seeking possession. We do hope that the occupants will take up the offer of accommodation from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s homeless team.”