A picturesque square’s nighttime secret: “There are just so many homeless people now”

“Those living on the streets here have doubled in the last two years.”

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The clocks turning back plunged the UK into meteorological winter on Sunday, but as the temperature plummeted in Manchester’s St Ann’s Square, there was little respite for the homeless taking to their sleeping bags in the freezing conditions.

The well-known friendly local man often spotted during the daytime on a bench with his two well-cared for dogs was nowhere to be seen, but there were others wrapped in woolly hats and tattered bedding curling up in corners in the shadow of Starbucks and Barclays.

The 800-year-old picturesque square is one of the city’s best-known spots. During business hours, it is packed with shoppers heading to the jewellers and shoe stores on its periphery.

It shot to national recognition in the public consciousness after the Manchester Arena bombing on 22 May 2017, when the space, enclosed by listed buildings, became the site for an impromptu outpouring of grief, festooned with heart-shaped balloons and teddy bears.

But the tributes have long been removed. After darkness falls, the complexion of the St Ann’s cobbles changes, as its high street storefronts offer a haven to the rough sleepers of the city.

Damon Spillane works with The Homeless Project, which serves the square on its city rounds. The team of volunteers brings trolleys of hot food, sandwiches, Greggs, pic’n’mix sweets and McVitie’s biscuits as well as trainers, sleeping bags, blankets and clothes, all desperately needed by those living on the streets.

Spillane explains the team used to go out once a fortnight, but for the last year they’ve taken their “supermarket” out twice a week to help clothe and feed those on Manchester’s streets.

“The number of people in St Ann’s Square fluctuates,” he says. “But there are quite a few regulars there we’ve been keen to keep an eye on and make sure they’re alright.

“There’s a guy called Damon and he has two dogs. Sometimes he’s in St Ann’s Square when we go there, but sometimes he isn’t.

“You meet so many people like him, when you don’t see them you want to know if they’re OK, or what’s happened to them.”

Spillane’s worry isn’t borne of drama – in October alone three men died in the city centre. And yet they are the great unseen, in St Ann’s and elsewhere.

“People walk past and don’t care,” Spillane says, adding that they often can’t find somewhere to sleep indoors, even in freezing temperatures.

“It’s harder to get somebody a bed, the process is not straightforward.

“There are some who don’t want to stay in a hostel because they are abstaining from alcohol or drugs and those things are being used in the hostel. Or sometimes people can only get a bed miles away and they don’t want to go there – they want to stay where they feel secure.”

From 1 November, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has pledged a bed for every night for those sleeping on the streets in Manchester, offering not just 300 extra beds in the area, but also a hot meal, shower, and support for those otherwise left forgotten on the streets.

The Mayor has pledged to end rough sleeping in Greater Manchester by 2020, a full seven years ahead of the national target. All 10 local authorities across the city-region have pledged support and resources, with the public being urged to make donations at A Bed For Every Night.

The Mayor says: “The generosity of spirit in Greater Manchester is beyond debate. We are not the type to simply walk on by. But the time has come to channel this goodwill and the work already being done across our city-region behind a single, thought-through and concerted campaign to tackle rough sleeping over the course of this winter.”

This is a change of approach from Manchester’s local authorities.

Locals remember well the news of evictions of the tent-dwellers in St Ann’s Square in the summer of 2015, as council employees loaded the camp, already moved on from nearby Albert Square and St Peter’s Square, onto lorries and out of sight – but not quite out of mind.

Its central location means more and newer homeless people are drawn there every week.

St Ann’s Square is the site of two bronze statues, one of statesman Richard Cobden and the other a memorial to the Boer War.

But earlier this year, another public artwork joined them. Jesus the Homeless, a sculpture, was erected in front of the red sandstone church which gives the square its name. But for the pierced feet – the wounds of crucifixion – the near life-size figure with his bronze face hidden by a blanket could almost be mistaken for a real homeless person, his form unnerving passers-by.

Last Saturday, a march took place in Manchester as people demanded action to tackle the homelessness crisis, but there is little evidence of support in St Ann’s after dark where the huddled masses of men and women seek peace in clear public view.

Danny Collins knows how it feels to be one of the forgotten.

The ex-serviceman spent years sleeping rough in Birmingham and Manchester and now leads tours of his former haunts with Invisible Cities, a social enterprise which trains people affected by homelessness to become walking tour guides.

The 62-year-old from Liverpool shares poems and stories as he leads groups from St Peter’s Square’s Central Library past the Albert Hall and St Mary’s Catholic Church – known as the Hidden Gem – through St Ann’s Square, trying to help people relate to the homeless through the arts.

Collins is a mentor with the Booth Centre, a support organisation in Manchester which helped to lift him from the streets four years ago.

“We’re not all mad alcoholics and drug addicts living in doorways,” he says. Collins has lost friends on the street, and speaks warmly of St Ann’s Church which annually holds a memorial service for homeless people who have died on the streets.

Collins adds: “Last year 480 people died on the streets of Britain – 38 of them were in Manchester.”

Authorities estimate roughly 500 people habitually sleep rough in Greater Manchester, with the city centre home to a significant proportion of the rough-sleeping population.

Collins isn’t surprised, and says he’s seen the numbers swell recently.

“Those living on the streets here have doubled in the last two years,” he tells me as we pass the McDonald’s.

“We’ve got a lot more younger people living on the streets.

“I don’t do politics, but with the change in the benefits with Universal Credit coming in, giving people their rent money instead of giving it to the landlord, it’s going to go wrong. it’s already going wrong.”

Since he first attended the Booth Centre for a hot breakfast four years ago, Collins’ life has changed considerably, and he no longer beds down for the night outside the Spar which he used to call “home”.

Chatty and engaging, he’s fiercely proud of the work he and his team have put in on the city’s Homeless Charter. He refused to host Andy Burnham on the tour as he would “probably take the publicity of what we’re trying to achieve”, as he puts it.

“Manchester’s actually got a good reputation for homelessness,” he adds. “People come here because they know they’re going to get help.”

For those who work in St Ann’s Square, there’s little room for hope. One woman who didn’t want to be named told me she walks through St Ann’s Square every day during her lunch break from work.

“There are just so many homeless people now, and it’s scary. You can’t give them money but you feel guilty and cruel not giving them anything.

“In the five years I’ve been coming through this part of the city, I still don’t know what I can do to help – and it’s only getting worse.”

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.