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Call to open buildings

January 04 2016
Activists who took over Manchester's Stock Exchange Building have inspired many others Activists who took over Manchester's Stock Exchange Building have inspired many others
Open up empty public buildings to allow homeless people shelter, campaigners demand

Over 100 campaigns, calling on local councils to open up empty public buildings to allow homeless people shelter, have sprung up across the UK.

Campaigners who have set up petitions have been inspired by the actions of activists from the Manchester Angels group, who occupied the Stock Exchange building in October.

It had recently been purchased by former Manchester United players Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. Instead of trying to evict them, the duo allowed them to stay until building work begins on the site in February. The publicity surrounding this act of generosity has had unexpected consequences, with Manchester City Council announcing it is looking into whether it can use unused buildings in the city to provide winter accommodation for rough sleepers.

“This is a lengthy process, but we have now identified the first pair which we can open and we're continuing to carry out inspections so we can open more empty buildings in other parts of the city,” says Paul Andrews, executive member for adult health and wellbeing at Manchester City Council.

“We’ve also reopened some buildings as shared houses, while faith groups are opening up other centres, meaning there will be a much wider range of bed spaces available across the city."

Since then, 103 local campaigns have sprung up on the 38 Degrees site, calling on councils around the UK to follow Manchester’s example. More than 139,000 people have put their names to these petitions, pressuring local authorities to do something about the shortage of winter accommodation. Several of these have attracted thousands of signatures – 2,129 Nottingham residents have backed their city’s appeal, while 1,233 people in Wrexham have petitioned their local council. Glasgow, however, leads the way by a significant margin: more than 19,000 people have demanded action in the Scottish city via two petitions.

However, Grant Campbell, chief executive of the Glasgow City Mission, which runs the city’s Winter Shelter, said that plans to open up disused buildings were not always a good idea. “It could and has historically led to an invisible community, unengaged and stuck with addiction and mental health issues unable to move on," he said.

“The significant difference with our shelter and opening up large public buildings is we have a staff team, volunteer team and are connected with NHS, local authority, police and third sector working to get people into appropriate accommodation.”

However, he said that bringing residential properties back into use and available through initiatives such as Shelter Scotland’s Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) could make a positive contribution, providing homes for those who need them.

“I’m keen that shelters don’t become part of the solution but that homes do,” he added.

“We’re determined that our shelter is temporary and that we’re working on other initiatives with the local authority and other third sector partners which aim to help people into appropriate accommodation.”

The view – which is shared by many charities – has irritated activists, who believe that it means control is taken out of the hands of homeless people themselves.

Official government figures show 2,744 people slept rough on any one night in 2014 – an increase of 55 per cent since 2010 (and likely a massive under-estimate of the true number).

In London, where there are now almost 3,000 rough sleepers (2,775 people were recorded on the CHAIN database as sleeping rough during April and June), a total of 25 organisations have pledged to open Winter Shelters this year (see our listings for details).