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Homelessness Action Network: Cllr Beth Knowles on Homelessness and the Arts in Greater Manchester

Rough sleeping in Manchester has increased 1,000% since 2010, mirroring a depressing trend across the country.

Despite attempts to relaunch themselves as a party with a firm grasp of a moral compass, the failed economic policies of the Tories’ austerity programme have left many in society struggling to stay afloat. Indeed, claims that austerity is an economic necessity are quickly dispelled when held under scrutiny.

For starters, the national debt has nearly tripled since the Tories took the helm in 2010 and, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), outsourcing to companies such as Capita and Maximus, who are tasked with bringing the benefits bill down through arbitrary sanctioning, costs more money than the Treasury saves from using them. Even a maths flunky like George Osborne can understand that these policies are ideological, which makes his legacy of increased homelessness and foodbank use even more galling.

Locally, the problem has become so severe that Greater Manchester’s first directly-elected mayor, Andy Burnham, made homelessness the cornerstone of his campaign. City Centre Councillor Beth Knowles, along with colleagues in the Greater Manchester Homelessness Action Network team, has been tasked with eradicating rough sleeping on the streets of Manchester by 2020. I spoke to her about her work with the team and plans to use the arts to helps to re-engage isolated individuals with society.

Can you explain your role as part of the Homelessness Action Network?

I’m one of Andy’s leads on his homelessness and rough sleeping work across Greater Manchester, along with Ivan Lewis MP. We work with the team at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and are developing a long-term strategy to tackle rough sleeping.

We’re drawing together the Action Network that Andy wants to create. We manage the fund and then manage the projects that it goes out to. We have just completed our draft action plan for the next three years, which we’re very proud of.

Is there anything that you can reveal about these plans?

At some point in July it will be a public document that everyone can feed into and then let us know which direction we should be heading in.

Respite, recovery and reconnection are the three pillars of the strategy. The idea behind it is that, first and foremost, you involve people with lived experience. That’s the most important thing about the way we’re working. Scaling up the ethos of the Manchester Homelessness Charter, taking the ethos that you involve people with lived experience and you involve the business sector, the faith sector, the voluntary sector, local authorities. It’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s drawing the spokes in and connecting them – that’s our job.

Can you tell us more about the three Rs?

Respite is the immediate accommodation needed when people come off the streets or flee whatever abusive or traumatic situation they’re in which makes them homeless.

The recovery element would be things around the arts, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes; people recovering back into the person they are or want to be, and into a sense of community.

Reconnection is introducing people into employment programmes, education programmes, whatever it is they’d like to pursue, focusing on their sense of self and community, so they’re then embedded into a support network. The key term is home. It’s not just rehousing people and forgetting about them.

Why is it important to involve people with lived experience?

By involving people with lived experience, you start off at a basis of respect. You don’t design services on people’s behalf, you design them with them on an equal basis.

How do you plan to tackle the spice epidemic that’s rife throughout the city centre?

It’s not just a rough sleeping problem first of all, but it is a significant problem in the rough sleeping population. We think between 50-60% of people who are rough sleeping are taking spice or some psychoactive substances of some form or another.

It becomes a barrier to services because people who are taking spice do not want to engage or be active within any services. You can take it and knock yourself out and it’s a cycle, like any drug abuse, but it’s particularly quick and immediate and very easy to access. I’ve watched drug dealers wake people up in sleeping bags and target people who are rough sleeping. It’s a huge issue for us to tackle as a city region. 90% of people in prisons are using spice, so you come out of prison and you’re homeless. It’s not just a rough sleeping issue. This is where a Greater Manchester approach really helps, because you can bring in services and authorities to work together, rather than one person in one place doing something. Ultimately, the police need to be given the resources to tackle the dealers effectively.

How do the arts benefit people who are experiencing homelessness?

On an individual level, somebody engaging in a positive activity in any form and then engaging in services because of that or being able to trust a service is great, so the arts are hugely important in that. A lot of the projects that we’re working on in Manchester that are really interesting are how the arts can be a gateway into the way people see you and the way people perceive you. It doesn’t have to be a story about being homeless – it’s your identity as an artist. So you become a photographer, or an artist, or somebody who sketches, not just a ‘homeless person’.

The arts are a really good way of doing that. There’s not really that many things that allow you to do that so effectively. I think a large part of why people think homelessness is such a large problem to tackle is that it’s not something that people really believe that they’ll face. They don’t meet people who have been homeless. They don’t talk to them. But you can through the arts.

Linking that into people’s identity, and them being able to express themselves, is powerful. And, if you’re doing that as part of a collective and not an individual, then you’re as powerful as the collective.

The international arts work I do with With One Voice, and some of the arts work in the city, is trying to bring all the cultural institutions together, to look at how they can take down barriers into their institutions and not tell people to get out because they’ve got a backpack on. You welcome people in instead and ask them if they’d like a tour around the museum, or the library, or wherever it might be. Then people feel that they’ve been accepted by society. They’ve been accepted by a cultural institution, so it’s what the arts can reflect, rather than what they seem to be on the surface.

It’s a conversation as human beings. It’s a way we can all connect to each other without speaking the same language necessarily. Artists are creative and they think imaginatively, so they come up with imaginative solutions to things, including homelessness.

Manchester City Council has been hit by cuts year on year leading, regretfully, to some controversial decisions about how the local authority deal with homelessness. Nevertheless, since Burnham’s appointment and the region’s newly-devolved status, there has been a marked change in attitude. As Tony Wilson once said, “This is Manchester and we do things differently here,” and it is heartening to know that Burnham has assembled a truly empathetic team who are keen to embody this maxim.

Contact Greater Manchester Homelessness Action Network:

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