As Greater Manchester heads to the polls to elect its first ever metro mayor, one issue has been hanging heavily over the campaign – the homelessness which has risen unchecked in the region for more than five years. Last November, 189 people were found to be sleeping rough across the region, up from 134 in 2015. The most visible representation of the problem was the “tent city” that emerged in the city centre before evictions in July 2016.
Recent media reports from the city’s central Piccadilly Gardens have shown the plight of many who take spice, the highly addictive formerly legal high.
Mayoral favourite Andy Burnham has promised to end rough sleeping completely by 2020. And some believe it’s more than just electioneering, as he has pledged 15 per cent of his mayoral salary to delivering the finances for the fight.
But while headlines deal with political rhetoric, the moral panic and discuss the “spice zombies” taking over, there is one element of the story being ignored – the homeless themselves.
Nico has been homeless for 12 years and says he feels, simply, as if he’s been forgotten.
The HIV positive 34-year-old attends homeless programme Coffee 4 Craig and Not Just Soup, a kitchen supported by Manchester restaurants. These allow him to to get clean a few times a week and grab some food – but says that his support network is severely wanting.
“The only support we’re getting is the police moving us on,” he told me. “I was at Santander and the place wasn’t even open and the police were moving us.
“The police shouldn’t be moving people on from the streets – because where else are they going to go?”
Amongst the 20 or so people queuing for the doors to open at an Oldham Street support venue on a sunny Sunday evening – just a stone’s throw from the city’s central shopping area – Nico was not alone in thinking he had been left behind.
And he has a very real idea of why he believes there isn’t more public attention given to their plight.
“The reaction to us as homeless is that a lot of people automatically think we’re spice heads, and that’s impacting on us on the street.”
Another man whom he called Andy walked in, telling Nico he caught the sun. “Yeah, it’s because I fell asleep outside Halifax,” Nico answered.
As of last week, there are measures in place which should guarantee people like Nico more support.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill was given royal assent at the end of April – and it places a legal duty on councils to give people meaningful support to try to resolve their homelessness, as well as introducing measures to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place.
In real terms, there will be £61m coming from central government to local authorities to help meet the costs of providing extra help and advice to homeless people, and people are risk of losing their home. But the trickle-down of funding could prove too late for some, as rough sleeping continues to rise in Greater Manchester.
So what could Burnham add with his salary pledge? At gross £110,000, that means a hefty wedge to start a fund, which he told me will be for those in the most need.
The former Leigh MP said: “The network that I’m setting up with Ivan Lewis and Beth Knowles is to create a coherent Greater Manchester-wide response, and allow people to donate to the fund. It won’t be bureaucratic, it’ll be quick and helpful for those who need it.”
Does that then, I asked, exclude regular charity donations from the bracket of “helpful giving”? “If I’m approached in the street, I give them something – a pound here, 50p there. Is it right? I don’t know, but making a donation to Shelter that day is no good for that person and their immediate needs. Maybe it is being used for drugs – you can’t know, but it’s natural to respond that way.”
Blaming cuts and decades of housing policy failure for the current problems, Burnham seems convinced that a change is coming. “The mayor has a voice to use on the national stage to point out the inhumane effect of government policies,” he said.
“Some people say homelessness is self inflicted or call them junkies, but when you point out that many are care leavers, and ex-forces, then public feeling does soften. I think there is a lot of public concern and there’s a will to do something.
“The spice coverage was a little frustrating in that it did make some candidates address people’s lifestyles, but that’s not the majority feeling.
“The reality is that if you were on the streets at night, you would probably think about taking something to take you out of the circumstances.”
That’s a position echoed by Chris, an attendee at the Not Just Soup kitchen. Although not a spice user, he admits to other forms of self-medicating.
“Taking drugs is like a comfort blanket, it’s a way of leaving it all behind. It fast-forwards time, so another day is gone,” he told me.
Now trying to deal with his own mental health issues, Chris is honest about his own struggle.
“Physically I’m great. What’s wrong with me is up here,” he tapped his temple.
“I’ve been through the system, but nobody has ever given me feedback on what’s wrong with me. I feel OK, then I feel suicidal, and I don’t get any support.
“Even when I was getting help, I’d use it as a drop-in – I’d sit through a two hour group about why people take drugs and then I’d leave and, because I hated my situation so much, I’d just get a drug or a drink to get out of it.
“Depression would kick in. You want to take drugs and drink to escape what it is you’re dealing with every day.”
However the future looks for homelessness in the city in the wake of the 4 May 2017 election, Burnham’s pledges appear to be serving members of the public more than those on the streets.
Chris admits he doesn’t believe in voting.
“Whoever you vote in, they promise ‘this will happen, this will happen’ when they get in power,” he said. “And when they get power they don’t do anything.”