Manchester homeless fight social cleansing

Since 15 April, homeless activists and their supporters have been building a political occupation of Manchester city centre, demanding homes and confronting pro-austerity politicians. In just five weeks of action, the Homeless Rights of Justice camp has been evicted twice by the Labour council, which banned homeless activists from the Central Library and instigated a smear campaign in the Manchester Evening News. Despite this, the camp has stood its ground and won the re-housing of seven of its activists. Resistance is growing in the North West.

For much of the last year volunteers have been organising food and clothing distribution for Manchester’s homeless people. The charity campaign has lacked any political direction in a city centre which has suffered a 50% rise in official rough sleeping in the last year, but the new protests are something different, expressing a working class refusal to take any more. Shocking pictures in the local press showed that in Stockport and other areas of Greater Manchester, homeless people have been forced to live in caves and wartime shelters. In a typical case, a homeless man in Stockport told reporters that after his benefits had been sanctioned seven times, he fell behind with his rent, lost his flat and was refused another one. Such stories are typical and homelessness is visibly rising.

After a march on 15 April turned into a confrontation between police/G4S guards and homeless solidarity activists at the Town Hall, tents were set up by over 30 homeless people and their supporters in Albert Square. The campaign at this stage focused on trying to negotiate with council leaders to win housing for the city centre’s homeless. Labour councillors and officials refused to listen to appeals unless the tents were removed and the homeless protesters cleared from the square. In an attempt to defeat the protests without housing anyone, the council imposed a possession order on Albert Square, evicting the camp.

The protesters moved to St Peter’s Square, next to the Town Hall and Central Library and continued to gather numbers, creating a sociable, welcoming community environment and welcoming political input from RCG and other supporters. The council banned homeless supporters from using the library building and employed G4S guards to keep people out. In the week leading up to the General Election, the camp told passers-by not to vote for councillors supporting social cleansing. Leading campaigner Adam Whelan told FRFI, ‘the whole camp was openly saying it is the Labour council doing the evicting’. Clearly the election would make no difference to the most oppressed sections of British society. Despite this, the SWP and the People’s Assembly have tried to dumb down the politics of this campaign into a ‘Tories out’ message which is patronising and backward. But sections of the working class are hungry for a more revolutionary politics and won’t be tamed by the old forces of the left.

After a total refusal to listen to the camp, the council offered two nights’ bed and breakfast, then accommodation where tenants would suffer the bedroom tax. After that they offered hostels. But as Adam says, ‘they are now submitting to our demands’. Public opinion seems to be on the side of the protesters, who have become more organised with clear demands to rehouse the homeless. ‘We’re stepping up our game with direct action. The Labour councillors are making themselves lose the media battle, going on about the £88,000 they say has been spent on policing and courts as a result of the protests. People are asking, “Why not spend it on housing?”’ Seven people have been rehoused so far, including five in a self-contained building with 24-hour support. This came after the council’s refusal to speak to anyone if the camp was not disbanded. The campaign has the politicians on the back foot.

The camp was evicted from St Peter’s Square on 19 May and has relocated to St Ann’s Square, forcing the council to move a trendy ‘spring market’. The numbers involved have fluctuated but the protests have had wide coverage, including by The Guardian and BBC, clearly aware that the problem of homelessness goes beyond the imaginary borders of Greater Manchester. On 22 May, Homeless Rights of Justice linked up with FRFI and Liverpool Love Activists for an occupation of McDonald’s on Oxford Road. The restaurant had refused to serve homeless people from the camp. The occupation emptied it and chanted against the Labour council and its corporate allies. We must continue to build on the rebellious spirit of Manchester’s homeless.

No justice – no peace!

RCG Manchester

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 245 June/July 2015