Lockdown on the streets of Manchester: how the homeless are risking their health for safety

  • Homeless feel better protected from virus on streets than in shared accomodation
  • Usual washing and meal facilities closed due to restrictions
  • Key worker says: 'The homeless think it’s a conspiracy as they haven’t caught it yet'

Sat with a coffee and some hand-rolled cigarettes, David Chapman spoke candidly to the Northern Quota about the trials of enduring a pandemic with no fixed abode.

­­­Lack of sanitation is proving to be a challenge for those without a fixed address, more so than usual during the pandemic.

The official number of rough sleepers who have been provided emergency accommodation as a direct result of Covid-19 has not been updated since August.

The most recent Gov.UK statistics on rough sleepers show that 14,610 have been put into temporary accommodation.

Emergency accommodation provided is defined as including ‘commercial hotels, B&Bs, hostels and other forms of self-contained temporary accommodation.’ 

Homeless people in tents in Albert Square in Manchester
Manchester homeless in Albert Square

At 58, David has been homeless for 24 years. He says Cornerstone and Barnabus, have both been regular help points in his life in Manchester.

For Mancunians like David, he says he “doesn’t want to put the NHS under any more strain if I can help it.”

He said: “Unfortunately, the charities can’t afford to provide our masks. There were places you could go hang out during the day and get more help, now not so much because of the social distancing.

“We’re not allowed in the buildings no more. Normally it’s just a couple of hours a day we get meals, we don’t get that or washing facilities or showering facilities.”

He said that the usual facilities he uses to get his clothes washed and dried were on the ‘backburner now.’

For meals, David says that the volunteers from the homeless charities he relies on are no longer allowed to come out with prepared meals, and that local shop donations are running dry. “If it isn’t by shops then we don’t get anything to eat,” he said.

Lack of clarity surrounding Christmas celebrations and what resources are available for those without families to stay with is causing uncertainty for the homeless.

The holiday is usually a time of sharing and celebration, with efforts made by the local shelters and charities. There is fear surrounding where the homeless may spend the holiday.

Fortunately, David has alternative plans and has said he will “probably go to family, they live in Salford so it’s not too far.”

When asked what he would do if he started being symptomatic of the virus, David said: “I’d go to a walk-in centre but if its busy then I’d try the GP. Failing that then A&E – only if I were desperate.”

The message seemed clear that he feels a personal responsibility to stay outside where possible.

Leading homeless charity Crisis say in their 2019 Homeless Monitor report, that homelessness ‘has been an upward trend for a number of years … we think current drivers are a combination of pressure on housing availability compounded by high numbers of asylum dispersal.’

Lifeshare Ltd offers help to the homeless young people aged 16-25.

Homeless man
Homeless man in Manchester using a plastic crate as seating

Operations manager Judy Vicars said the company keen to safeguard older members of the homeless community, promising to “educate them about technology through the use of online seminars, wellbeing, yoga, with the help of an upcoming push donation campaign.”

Lifeshare works virtually with clients as the building is not in use to provide usual washing and meal services.

Judy said: “We can’t deliver indoor breakfast so do it from the street, provide sanitiser and masks for our clients, the clients are lined up and given a squirt of gel and a mask.

“We give out pocket sized sanitisers, and when we do food parcels for the homeless, we put in 2-3 mask little san and a little san – I’ve run out, but we usually give out little camping towels.

“Since governmental regulations came in about mask wearing, our young people with little money now have the hard choice of spending it on food, or on masks and sanitiser until pay day.

“One company made me lots of washable masks which are no good if you’re living on street, they have nowhere to wash them.”

Masks are mandatory in most public spaces in Manchester

With Lifeshare so close to the heart of Manchester’s homeless community, many of their clients have revealed that true safety from the virus is felt on the streets.

She explained: “A lot of the homeless think it’s a conspiracy as they haven’t caught it yet. Have they got a better immune system? I don’t have the answer.

“The rough sleeping lads have built up an immunity, they don’t want to go indoors because they fear catching it from others they’ll be in closer proximity to.

“When they’re out on the streets they can manage their own safety and health. The lads are more nervous – the offer of a bed looks great but they’re too frightened to accept.”

Having self-sufficiency through previous harsh winters, coupled with reductions to funding year on year for homeless support in England, is shown in Judy’s clients’ testimonies to self-belief in their survival.

Lifeshare is to launch a digital campaign shortly asking members of the public to donate phones or tablets.

Track and Trace, the government initiative which has garnered much criticism in comparison to other countries methods of tracing the virus, can then be used when the homeless wish to enter places they previously didn’t have access to.

Judy said: “We’ll clean up the electronics donated so that clients aren’t digitally marginalised.

“It’s all right being put in a hotel but when you have no wi-fi or means of communication it isn’t helpful.”

The Co-op Foundation’s Lonely Not Alone campaign encourages people experiencing loneliness to speak up.

Young people are lonely more often than any other age group. Wear yellow socks and share your Outfit of the Day to show you care #OOTDYellowSocks

Judy said: “Young people’s mental health is suffering out on the streets. We have partnered up with Lonely Not Alone and even wore yellow socks in the office, which has been encouraged by the foundation to show solidarity with youths experiencing loneliness.”

When asked about the service’s plans for Christmas, Judy said: “We normally have our Christmas 23 to 29 December, offering three meals a day.

“Doctors and nurses are in attendance; we’ve been running our weeklong Christmas for 32 years now. The volunteers who live alone need the company too, it isn’t just for our clients.

“The worst part is we don’t know if we can make indoor provisions. Right now, Christmas is not going to not happen.”

Judy acknowledges the additional risks to the homeless community of contracting the virus, citing “reduced access to hand washing and funds to purchase masks” as the main barriers.

“If they’re nomadic then they don’t have a bank account, and all the benefits that come with having stability.”

Reliance on Manchester homeless charities is at an all-time high, the most recent 2019 figures show a substantial increase in homelessness. Homeless Link, a service that match up homeless people to services, state that ‘since 2010 the rough sleeping figure has increased by 141%.’