Homelessness is a complex and emotionally charged subject. As with any other matter of heated public dispute, it’s difficult to pin down the truth amid the outcry. Manchester’s homelessness problem is far too often presented as a false dichotomy – the activists versus the Council – a skewed portrayal being fuelled from all sides.

The activists benefit from pushing this ‘us and them’ rhetoric as it rallies support for their actions when a demonisable enemy is clearly defined. But the Council is not their foe. It’s clearly in the Council’s interests to reduce homelessness in the area, even if that’s only for aesthetic purposes and to satisfy businesses and investors.

The Council is no less guilty of upholding this misconception and continues to benefit from vilifying the protestors and (by proxy) the homeless, thus transferring blame from themselves and legitimising their occasional quasi-Draconian quick-fix solutions.

Protestors and Manchester City Council are locked in a laborious exchange of accusations propelling a senseless battle of warring factions who in reality have the same interests at heart. This needless antagonism causes all sorts of problems. For a recent example, when the Council requested to install heaters in the activist-occupied Stock Exchange building, they were refused entry by distrustful campaigning squatters.

The campaigners were granted temporary access to the property by its high-profile owners, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. The football stars have been undeniably generous in their donation of the £1.5 million real estate for use as a homeless shelter, but in reality they have very little to lose from the deal. The building was previously unused and it’s highly unlikely that the activists will cause any damage when they have so much at stake. Meanwhile, the ex-Manchester United legends can bask in some welcome positive publicity following the controversy surrounding their Hotel Football project.

While it’s hard to find fault with the activists’ passion and determination, their irrational actions often do more harm than good. This is most clearly evident in the various direct action campaigns of recent months, spurred on by the illusory notion of a conflict of interests between themselves and local organisations.

First to be targeted was Manchester Town Hall, which resulted in a smashed window and the subsequent blanket banning of anyone who could be considered a protestor from Manchester Central Library, including numerous unfortunate homeless people caught in the crossfire.

Then, in August, demonstrators set up Occupy-style protest camps across the city centre to castigate the Council’s alleged negligence of rough sleepers. The obvious difficulties and backlash this caused (the protestors zeroed in on upmarket commercial districts) forced the Council and courts to impose a citywide injunction against pitching tents, causing yet more strife for the downcast and destitute.

As the various other parties involved benefit from this confrontation, the homeless of Manchester have nothing unique to gain from the campaigners’ actions. Although they receive shelter, food and support from the philanthropic project, there are a good number of long-term shelters available elsewhere, alongside soup kitchens, advice centres and food banks. It’s a concern that by distracting from these fixed opportunities and disparaging the Council’s genuine efforts to help, the activists may be perpetuating the problem.

Activist Recruitment

For the homeless people swept up in this harmful drama, a crucial moral question arises, as the activists’ public statements allude to them having politicised the people they proclaim to protect. In a recent Facebook post by Wesley Hall, leader of the anti-homelessness campaign Manchester Angels, he described how “proud” he felt after converting two drunken homeless people into “activists”. Would he feel it was justified if a far-right group took to recruiting inebriated rough sleepers?

Other participants who benefit from misrepresenting the issue include online individuals who succumb to the slacktivist mentality in exchange for social reward, and certainly not least the media – that is to say, me. A deeply polarised and vociferous dispute is a wet dream for newspaper editors.

I don’t wish to entirely discredit Manchester City Council or the homelessness campaigners and for the most part their intentions appear to be honourable, but in order to address the multiplex issue of homelessness, it is imperative that all parties involved drop the demagoguery and propaganda and establish an open dialogue, with the activists working alongside the Council towards sensible permanent solutions.

Longtom Richardson