By James Skipper
Oxford Road is a hub of activity; a gateway to the city, accommodating three universities, bars, clubs, and a horde of greasy takeaways to satisfy the taste buds and clot the arteries of Manchester’s student population. But for some, Oxford Road performs a more integral function, as a place to simply survive. For a number of years, the piece of disused land under the Mancunian Way overpass has been used by a handful of homeless people as a place of mild sanctuary, in what is an otherwise desolate struggle on the city’s streets. “The Ark”, as it is colloquially known, was, until last Friday, the location of Manchester’s homeless camp that has been set up in various locations across the city, each time being disrupted and dispersed by Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester Police. The makeshift homeless shelter was set up by homeless people and activists, who argue it is a much needed place of safety and solidarity. A metal fence has been erected since the eviction, in a definitive reclamation by Manchester Metropolitan University, who lease the land from the council.
“We have been working with the Council and support agencies to understand the complex nature of this situation and the group, and have satisfied ourselves that our actions would not be detrimental to genuine causes and individual needs.”
The situation has sparked dispute between campaigners and statutory authorities, regarding the treatment of the homeless population in Manchester, and the way in which the repossession was carried out. I went to the recently defunct site of the Ark and spoke to two young men, Darren and Wes, who were living in the camp before the intervention.
Darren, a young Irish man, has been living in Manchester for one of his four years spent homeless, after a breakdown in family relationships forced him to move away. He proceeded to tell me how the Ark had been a spot of support and comfort for him, particularly after the recent death of his father, “We had everything we needed”, until he was awoken one morning by an argument between council enforcers and members of the camp. A non-physical altercation resulted in Darren’s arrest, and later charged with Affray in court, “They charged me with Affray, which is serious stuff… I’m out on bail now, under this bridge, they [the council] just don’t care”. The two were justifiably angered by the treatment of the individuals at the camp, “It’s disgusting”, muttered Darren, as Wes recounted an incident involving council bailiffs and a female member of the camp who refused to leave “They dragged her screaming out of the tent, she smashed her head against the pavement and had to go to hospital”.
The same bailiffs were videoed throwing smaller possessions found in the camp in to a skip, which prompted outcry from charities such as Helping Hearts, who described themselves as ‘disturbed’ by the behaviour of the bailiffs in their official statement after the dismantling of the camp.
On the surface, it appears that every party involved with the homeless situation in Manchester is genuinely striving to protect the city’s most vulnerable people. In their official statement after the contentious dismantling operation, The City Council stated “we sympathise with the plight of all genuinely homeless people, but some people connected with this camp are not homeless and have their own accommodation”. It is these activists involved with the camp that have prompted the real concern and action from MMU, MCC and Greater Manchester Police. In corroboration with the council’s statement, the city’s Police issued a declaration which read “All those living within this site will be offered outreach support and accommodation options by MCC”. It was confirmed that five people living at The Ark took up offers made by the council after last Friday’s take-over, to move in to Brydon Court, a drug abstinence project which holds 13 single occupancy rooms, and 9 self-contained flats. However, many were reluctant, for a number of complex reasons, to accept this offer, though it appears to be a step in the right direction.
For a lot of people living on the streets, the efforts made by external organisations must feel like a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Banners made by the supporters of the camp amplify the fear entwined in to homelessness, one simply read “WE DON’T FEEL SAFE”.
In my conversation with Darren, he brought my attention to the number of young people living on the streets that go undetected by the general public,
“There are so many young people out there, hiding away ‘cos they’re scared… That’s why we’re here, people need to know about it”.
I entirely agreed with Darren on his point; to know that there are people, teenagers, in such destitute situations is alarming, but in an age where young people are perpetually drawing the short straw, is it hardly surprising?
As students, it is important that we are aware of the ubiquitous struggle of homelessness. Manchester Metropolitan University has previously contributed through events and projects, in helping the city’s homeless, and when speaking to those at The Ark, students were praised for their kindness and generosity in the last few days. Exemplarily, a small, peaceful protest took place near the MMU campus on Wednesday, calling for better provisions to be made for the homeless population of Manchester.
As much as it is the council and the police force’s responsibility to maintain order in the city, it is a parallel responsibility to look after its people. Action has definitely been taken, but from accounts of those there, the hastiness of a court injunction and the invasive manner in which the dismantling of the Ark on 18/09/15 occurred, is something which needs to be addressed. Rough sleeping has risen by 55% since 2010, and 14% in just the last year – progress must be continued, with communication, empathy and attentiveness.