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Manchester has a homelessness crisis. But it's not the one you thought
Special Investigation: After six months of reporting, we tell the story of the city's most pressing social problem - and how the authorities are flailing in response
By Joshi Herrmann, Olivia Davidson, Jack Dulhanty and Alexandria Slater. Data analysis by Shivaji Ray Chaudhuri, Maoxuan Fan and Sumit Patel
There’s a story that’s been told a hundred times about Manchester. Told so often you barely register it as a narrative anymore — it’s just something your brain knows, like left and right.
Manchester used to be affordable and it isn’t anymore. Developers have prioritised building luxury accommodation over homes which ordinary people can afford, pushing up the numbers of homeless residents as rents spiral up and the social housing list swells.
It’s a good story: it’s got villains and victims; tension and narrative clarity. It’s even got a hero: the Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, elected to office with rough sleepers on every street corner and now credited with alleviating the city’s most pressing social challenge.
But is it true? After the Manchester Evening News published a story in February asking the question “Has Manchester rebuilt London’s housing crisis?”, we took the bait. With the help of a team of data science graduate students at the University of Manchester who came into our office each week, a brilliant intern and two of The Mill’s staff reporters, we started to have a look.
Does Manchester have a crisis that is starkly different to other northern cities? Should the city’s thousands of homeless residents prompt us to worry about our economic model and ask, as the MEN put it, “deeper questions about the city’s future”?
We thought it would take a few days before we published something, perhaps a few weeks. Six months later, we’ve got a story for you to read.
The reality is — well, the reality is long. The reality is long because there’s not much that’s black and white. There are good intentions and bad consequences. There are misunderstandings and flawed systems. There are nuances and fiddly details that we’ve spent months trying to unpick and understand.
But we think it’s worth reading, even though it’s complicated. Because it turns out that yes, Manchester has a huge and worrying problem with homelessness. But it’s a different kind of problem than we originally thought.
A year ago, long before Boris Johnson’s ministers and aides began fretting over the findings of an investigation into “party gate” by the leading civil servant Sue Gray, a different “Gray report” was handed to key officials at Manchester City Council, with much less media fanfare. In fact, it’s never been quoted in the media until now.
This one was by Tim Gray, a highly respected expert who has been working in housing and homelessness for three decades. Gray, a bespectacled man in his 50s, had been called in by the council to review its use of “temporary accommodation” for homeless households. After interviewing council officials and reviewing key data, Gray concluded that the council was making major mistakes — and was probably breaking the law.
Temporary accommodation, or TA, is where councils put people who are homeless or who the council agrees are at risk of homelessness. The key thing to know is that, according to the dozens of homeless people we have spoken to, living in temporary accommodation is pretty miserable. Many of the TA blocks do not have cooking facilities and enforce a night-time curfew. “It's the most horrible thing you can ever be in,” one woman told us when we visited a hotel used for TA in Rusholme — she had become homeless after being abused by her neighbours. “It's a very bad situation, I don't feel good,” said a man staying in similarly dreary facility in Moston, who became homeless after bringing his family over from Sudan.
The other key thing to know is that the term “temporary accommodation” tends to mean the opposite in Manchester. The average stay is currently 441 days, or more than 14 months, and allocations data from the council suggests those moving on from TA into other forms of accommodation have often been there for around three years. At one TA complex in Openshaw we met a 62-year-old man called Craig who had been living there for four years after losing his home because of the “bedroom tax”. "There's mental issues, drug issues, drink issues in this block,” he told us, wearing gardening gloves and tending to his small allotment outside. “There's some not-so-nice people in here but you get that everywhere. In every one of these types of buildings, people will try and take advantage of the vulnerable.”
And then there’s the graph.
The city is warehousing an astonishing number of households in temporary accommodation. In 2013 it was fewer than 400 — now it’s more than 2,500 households, including several thousand children. It’s a number that is frequently quoted in the national newspapers to illustrate that something is going badly wrong here.
The rise is best illustrated by this extraordinary graph, which compares Manchester to other boroughs in Greater Manchester. It’s the graph we have sent to every local leader, charity worker and off-the-record council officer we have spoken to in the past six months, asking them if they can make sense of it. Manchester’s number shoots up so fast it looks like some kind of data entry error, while all the other boroughs, including neighbouring ones like Salford which have similar demographics and economic trends, rise much more gradually.
The city’s TA numbers have risen almost 600% since 2014, nine times faster than the national average. And that means Manchester now has a higher number of people in TA per population than any local authority outside London and Luton.
Little of this can be blamed on the pandemic because the numbers were already stratospheric two years ago and they have merely continued their trajectory since 2020. In 2019-20, a year of data almost entirely unaffected by the pandemic, Manchester had 10 homeless households in TA per 1000 households living in the city, compared to two per 1000 in places like Salford, Oldham or Liverpool and less than one in Leeds and Sheffield. The only non-London city anywhere near Manchester was Birmingham, with six households per 1000 (although comparisons between areas aren’t perfect because of how some councils use a different category of accommodation called “exempt”).
Tim Gray was brought in by the council last year to review how it was using TA. His report, which The Mill obtained from Manchester City Council recently, notes: “The unremitting growth in temporary accommodation numbers over the past few years is larger in Manchester than almost anywhere else.” With a note of understatement, he adds that it would “appear to be extremely desirable to halt and reverse the rise in the use of temporary accommodation” and to reduce the massive costs to the council.
Those costs are eye-watering: In 2014/15, the council spent £7.5m on temporary accommodation — this year it expects to spend £32m. While some of that cost is soaked up by national housing benefit, all of it is funded by the taxpayer in some form. The council’s homelessness directorate has 328 people working for it and has a budget of £27.3 million a year, meaning that the council spends more on homelessness than it does on highways, libraries, galleries, culture, parks and leisure put together. In fact, around 5p in every pound paid in council tax goes towards paying the mostly private landlords and hotels who provide TA and the staff who oversee the system.
An anomaly with the mayor’s flagship project
During his review, Gray came across an intriguing issue that has cropped up in our own reporting but which we had been unable to confirm. One well-placed source told us that Andy Burnham’s high-profile campaign to reduce rough sleeping in Greater Manchester, which has by all accounts been a major success, was having an unintended effect on the less visible side of homelessness: the many people living in TA.
Burnham’s interventions have been credited with reducing the number of people sleeping on the streets across Greater Manchester from more than 250 in 2016 to less than 70 at the latest count this summer. Central to that has been an initiative called A Bed Every Night, or ABEN, which is designed to offer accommodation to rough sleepers who might not otherwise be able to receive council help for some technical reason, like having left a TA facility in the past or being in major debt.
But when Gray examined the rules, he realised a problem: the system has been designed in such a way that ABEN referrals are getting priority for social housing — the holy grail for anyone in TA — ahead of people considered to have “priority need”, for example, disabled mothers who cannot work or find housing. As Gray puts it, “the system often gives greater priority for accommodation and support to this group [rough sleepers] than those who may have greater vulnerability and have been assessed to be in priority need, who often spend a considerable time in B&B with little or no support.”
And there’s another problem: “ABEN also accommodates people who are not sleeping rough but who are assessed by referral agencies as being at risk of doing so,” Gray notes. Or as an expert who has worked for many councils on homelessness puts it: “If you are talking about people who come onto the street for a very short time, I don't know how much we know about their circumstances.”
It's unclear how much these anomalies introduced by ABEN are distorting the local homeless system, but it seems to be a case of good intentions and unintended consequences. And it illustrates how much messier and knottier the homelessness crisis in Manchester is when examined up close. The public rightly demand that local leaders help the many people who are living on our streets, but the signature policy created to do that may be ensuring that even needier people are condemned to spend years in bleak TA blocks.
“If what you're doing is making sure everyone is off the streets straight away, you create a conveyor belt where people just know, come to Manchester and that's a quick way to get a place to live,” says one source who used to work in the council. “I don't think there is any political ambition to look into this to see how well it [ABEN] is working because I think it will uncover the fact that it creates an anomaly”.
When we put this to Andy Burnham’s team at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, they told us: “We are proud of the achievements of the programme and all the organisations involved in helping us significantly reduce rough sleeping. However, we also recognise that homelessness is wider than rough sleeping and we don’t underestimate the challenges our councils face in responding to increased need while dealing with years of budget cuts.”
A spokesperson for Manchester City Council said: “People are being helped off the streets and that’s a good thing. If this success is not yet being replicated in reducing temporary accommodation numbers the answer is to address that, and above all to maximise prevention of homelessness — which we are striving to achieve through our homelessness transformation programme — not to stop helping people off the streets.”
Is Manchester City Council breaking the law?
That’s far from the only eyebrow-raising detail we have learned about how Manchester’s homelessness system really operates. For the past few years, Manchester City Council has been vowing to move away from a deeply controversial type of TA called “B&B”.
To explain: TA comes in various types — the most common being houses, blocks or former hotels that the council leases over a long period to house homeless residents, known as “dispersed” TA. The council owns some of its own “in-house” accommodation, though this is a relatively small slice of its provision. And then it also pays for emergency rooms in hotels and bed and breakfasts, which is controversial because the council has no control over who homeless people might be sharing a corridor with. This type of TA is known as “B&B”.
Valuable reporting by the Manchester Evening News has shown that “B&B” rooms are often of terrible quality — filthy and unsafe — and the newspaper highlighted cases where the children of homeless families ended up in the same hotel as sex offenders. On top of that, B&B gives families less stability, making it harder for them to nail down a job and find their way out of homelessness. There’s also the law to contend with. Under the Homelessness Suitability of Accommodation Order 2003, it is unlawful for a local authority to house homeless families with children in B&B unless there is no other option available.
On the face of it, it looks like Manchester has kept its promise to reduce its use of B&B — a council update in May showed 145 families and 371 singles living in B&B, less than 20% of the households in TA. But that disguises the reality: the council is in fact using B&B routinely.
We found that the vast majority of households are spending time in B&B in the first instance. Responding to one of our Freedom of Information requests, the council said that 90% of households placed in temporary accommodation in 2021/22 had been placed in B&B accommodation at some point. In total it has paid for 134,417 nights in B&B in the year 2021/22, for which it has paid £7.5 million to the hotel owners.
This “norm within the council’s practice” is highly unusual, Gray notes, and seems to contradict the law. “It is hard to argue that this is because no other accommodation is available,” he writes, before adding: “This is something that doesn’t happen in most other local authorities, with many councils managing to avoid the use of B&B for families almost entirely, including those with severe homelessness pressures such as many of the London boroughs”.
As well as being unlawful, bad for the families and counter-productive, this mass use of B&B by Manchester City Council is also extremely expensive. Gray finds that at £329 per household accommodated, “the weekly cost of B&B per household is significantly more than that paid by the London boroughs”. London’s councils are paying around £40 per night compared to £62.94 per night in Manchester for families. “Bearing in mind that the underlying cost of accommodation in London is much higher than Manchester, this is quite revealing,” he writes. Or as a senior councillor put it to The Mill: “It’s costing us a bomb.”
A former senior officer in the homelessness directorate said the routine use of B&B is a choice on the part of council officers – because it makes their lives easier. “They don't care about the welfare of homeless children,” the person said. “That's it. Because, if they did, they wouldn't do it.”
A council spokesperson told us that “there is a process in place” to move people directly into dispersed and in-house TA, and said it was now using a form of TA called “nightly rate” after it was recommended by Gray. They added: “The Council has a responsibility to provide households with accommodation if they present as homeless and where there is a statutory need. Demand for TA is huge and it is therefore necessary to use accommodation that is available to us in the short term. This includes B&Bs.”
The revelation about the mass use of B&B might be one of the reasons Gray’s report has never seen the light of day. The Mill understands that when Gray submitted a draft of his report to the council’s Director of Housing Operations David Ashmore, whose brief includes homelessness, Ashmore didn’t want it to be shared with elected councillors. And when we interviewed the council’s new leader Bev Craig recently, who was a deputy leader this time last year (albeit not in charge of homelessness), she said she had never heard of Gray’s report until we requested it under Freedom of Information laws.
A spokesperson for Manchester City Council said: “The Report was commissioned and managed by a previous senior member of staff in the homeless service and did not reach final form as this person left the organisation. However, it was sufficiently completed to be able to report the content to members through a number of scrutiny reports and for the homeless service to begin acting on the findings. It’s not true that the report was blocked.”
When we contacted Gray independently a few months ago, he said he would be happy to be interviewed for this story if the council gave its agreement. We have asked the council to let Gray speak to us, but after six requests, they have not done so.
Causes and excuses
Certain well-known factors — rising rents; the lack of affordable and social homes; entrenched deprivation; the housing benefit freeze which means that benefit claimants can afford fewer and fewer properties — have been cited many times to explain the city’s homelessness crisis, and there’s little doubt they are all playing a part. They were the reasons mentioned by Ashmore when we spoke to him earlier this year, and taken together, they have become part of the accepted orthodoxy in which the thousands of homeless people in temporary accommodation are proof of a flaw in the way Manchester’s economy has developed.
Journalists writing about Manchester often suggest that the glut of new housing developments across the city might actually be causing the problem by gentrifying neighbourhoods and pushing up rents. As one national newspaper journalist tweeted earlier this year: “can you draw a straight line between towers and thousands of families in emergency accommodation due to rising rent costs and not enough affordable/social housing? Some will argue yes.”
But the idea that thousands of families are in TA because of rising rents doesn’t find support even from people who are sympathetic to the idea that a lack of social housing is key to the crisis. “I don't think this is just about rents,” says Paul Dennett, the elected mayor of Salford, whose portfolio for Greater Manchester includes homelessness. “If I'm honest with you, I genuinely don't think you can reduce this issue to just saying this is about rents. This is about lots and lots of things.”
Rents have risen fast in Manchester in the past decade, making it more difficult for residents on lower incomes to afford private sector properties. But they have actually risen even faster in Salford — the median rent up 26% between 2014/15 and 2020/2021, compared to 23% in Manchester. None of this data seems to explain why, during the same period, TA numbers have risen so much faster in Manchester than Salford.
Bizarrely, Manchester has a similar level of underlying homelessness, counted as the number of people the council accepts are homeless or at risk or homelessness, to similar local authorities. While Salford had 18 homeless households per 1000 in 2019/20, Manchester had 13, not far ahead of cities like Sheffield and Birmingham. People who present as homeless in Manchester are ending up in accommodation paid for by the council in massive numbers, whereas other areas with similar rent increases and homelessness rates are seemingly coping much better.
It's often said that people are getting stuck in TA for much longer in Manchester because we have a chronic lack of council houses. Again, the numbers don’t seem to support that. For one thing, our data team found that Manchester has more social housing as a proportion of its overall dwellings than any of the other boroughs in Greater Manchester and more than any other major UK city, including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.
There were around 15,000 people waiting for social homes in the year before the pandemic, and it’s a bit lower now. Interestingly, the list is more or less the same length it was in 2014 when the TA numbers started to take off. Manchester has a very typical waiting list — 59 households waiting for social housing per 1000 households, compared to 74 in Bolton, 58 in Wigan, 44 in Salford, 42 in Trafford, and just over 70 in Leeds and Liverpool. Experts warn against comparing waiting lists too closely, because of the range of factors that can lead people to join or leave a list, but there’s certainly no sign here that Manchester has a particularly acute housing crisis.
‘You’re just managing it badly’
Manchester City Council says preventing homelessness — by, for example, helping people to stay in their homes or find a new one — is one of its key priorities. But there’s a sense from the people we have spoken to that it’s been an area of real weakness for the council. “If you say you are prioritising prevention but all your money is being spent 'after the statutory line', then it's just talk,” says a former senior official who worked for the homelessness directorate (by the statutory line he means after the point at which the council has a statutory responsibility to house a family).
He says that when he joined the council, the explanations for why TA numbers were rising “never made sense to me”. Having seen how other councils worked to prevent homelessness, and also how they got families out of TA into social and private rented housing, he soon concluded that Manchester wasn’t in the grip of an epochal housing crisis like no other: it was experiencing rising homelessness like other places have, and “managing it badly.”
A different former officer, again someone who was right at the top of the housing directorate in recent years, observed that the department he worked in was suffering from a kind of institutional inertia. "You've got a workforce that, for the past ten years, have been dealing with all the issues that we've talked about, and got to a point of feeling that there's almost nothing they can do for people. And that is incredibly demoralising.”
Systems that weren’t helping to reduce the number of families in TA were being continued and many of the systems across the 300-person directorate didn’t sync up. "I think it's no matter how bad things are, [it] can be comforting to carry on doing the same thing, can't it?” the source told us. And there was a bit of arrogance too, they said. “Certainly, in some cases, there is a feeling of we're Manchester, we're best. This is right, this is how we do it in Manchester.”
The council points out that it has very low “void rates” — meaning properties that are empty — and says its social housing has become much more popular with residents over the past two decades, meaning that fewer are vacating their homes. And in one important respect, they are in a difficult position.
On the one hand, they naturally want to move lots of homeless households out of TA and into social homes, and they have tweaked their housing allocations policy recently to achieve this. On the other hand, they don’t want the message to spread that being in homeless temporary accommodation is a fast track to social housing. Because that idea appears to have spread far enough already.
During our visits to TA blocks across Manchester, we met people from around the country — and around the world. One man from Iran was living with his wife and two kids. When their asylum seeker accommodation in Openshaw ran out, they presented to the council as homeless and were put into TA. "It's okay if you're single, but with kids it is very hard,” he told one of our reporters about the hotel he was living in.
At another block again, we met two men in their 40s, both of whom had moved from Cumbria, and soon presented as homeless here. “We've got quite a few from outside of Manchester,” said a worker at one of the TA blocks we visited. “We've had from Liverpool, we've had from London, we've had from Scotland. We've had from Northern Ireland, but generally all over the place,” he said.
Our reporters who made repeated visits to more than a dozen TA blocks kept coming up against a particular problem: we hadn’t organised translators for this project and many of the people they were trying to interview didn’t speak English. Manchester City Council says it doesn’t collect information about the nationality of the people in TA, but a recent council document says 63% of families in temporary accommodation are from an ethnic minority.
“We do get a lot of people who come into this city and present themselves as homeless,” says a senior councillor who we approached for this story and who asked to speak off the record. “It's an open secret that people in Oldham, Bolton and Bury are told if they are homeless, they are told they have a better chance of getting a property if you go to Manchester.”
It’s worth noting that a change to the law in 2017 removed some of the barriers to presenting as homeless in an area where you don’t have longstanding links. Manchester may owe someone a statutory duty if they have family in the city or fear violence in other areas — or even if they are working in Manchester but have no other links. That legal change might help to explain why popular and fast-growing cities like Manchester and Birmingham have seen their TA numbers shooting up compared to other lower-profile cities and towns.
Paul Dennett, Salford’s mayor, wonders if some people “feel they stand a better chance to get access to accommodation or services” in Manchester, adding: “Inevitably, there's always been this kind of centrifugal pull really, for people to present in Manchester.” And Judy Vickers, from the homelessness charity Lifeshare, agrees that Manchester pulls in people from elsewhere. “A lot of people gravitate to the city but we can't accommodate everybody,” she told us.
When we have asked the council about this issue, they have tended to be slightly cagey about it. On the record, Ashmore told The Mill that “it's Manchester communities who are presenting as homeless. So I think we need to be clear about that.” But off the record, senior council officials tell the story with more nuance. Greater Manchester gets “an awful lot of refugees and asylum seekers” points out one source, and “when they get a positive [asylum] decision, then they do apply as homeless, and therefore that does create more numbers of people who become homeless than other areas who don't accept asylum seekers.”
Charities that support asylum seekers in the city say they tell their clients that they can present themselves as homeless, and nationally the Refugee Council has a guide on how charities can help their clients to present. Referring to the initial stages of a presentation, “an applicant just needs to give the local authority reason to believe that they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness,” the guide says.
A councillor who comes from an ethnic minority background and represents a diverse ward says that the 63% BME statistic is instructive. “The only people who have become homeless on my road have been people who came in [from outside the city],” they told us. “People with longstanding relationships and families and connections to the area, they are not becoming homeless, because they have support networks.”
At the heart of the matter is a tricky problem about expectations: if people think that presenting as homeless in Manchester (as opposed to in Liverpool or Salford or Bolton) is more likely to lead to TA accommodation and a social home after that, naturally many will want to do so. “Yeah, it's difficult,” admits one senior officer in the homeless directorate. “It is a difficult myth to overcome.”
A spokesperson for the council told us: “While it is difficult to quantify, there does seem to be a misconception among some people that presenting as homeless is a fast track to the top of the social waiting list for social housing in Manchester.”
‘Out of here soon’
Manchester City Council says that it is already addressing many of the issues raised in this story and in Gray’s report, and believes its recently published housing strategy — which places a much greater emphasis on affordable and social homes — will help to alleviate the crisis. It says a consultancy firm is currently conducting another review of its homelessness systems, “to help us redesign homelessness prevention pathways, improve the support offer for temporary accommodation residents and secure longer term alternatives to temporary accommodation.”
When we met the council’s leader Bev Craig in her office in June, she said this issue was a priority for her, and she blamed austerity and a lack of house building for starting the upward surge. “I think it's one of the biggest challenges that we face,” she told us, outlining two areas of focus. “One is to prevent the number of people going into temporary accommodation in the first place. And the second is to make sure that people aren't staying in temporary accommodation beyond what they really need to do. If it's temporary accommodation it needs to be temporary.”
Craig was also open about how the uneven distribution of asylum seekers across the country was putting pressure on Manchester’s homeless services, suggesting that the council would work with housing associations to create a tailored solution for people who had just received their right to remain.
“We're a big city, we're a city that's a home of migrants, we've been built by people who have come from all across the world,” she said. “And we're a welcoming city. But the government still places more people in Manchester while they're awaiting a decision [on asylum] than they do in the entirety of London and the South East. And there is a challenge to that.”
Fundamental to this story is the question of whether this city’s shocking number of families living in temporary homeless accommodation is primarily a story about Manchester’s problems or about problems that have shown up in Manchester but have their origins elsewhere or in society as a whole.
Most coverage about this issue — much of which from the Manchester Evening News and The Meteor has been outstanding — has tended to coalesce around a story about the failure of Manchester’s economic model to build enough homes for poorer residents as rents rise and benefits are squeezed. Our reporting suggests there is more going on — that on top of the economic drivers in the city itself, this is a story about a council dealing with pressures that aren’t always of Manchester’s making and struggling to find the right solutions.
What makes it particularly important to understand this complex issue right now is the economic tsunami that’s about to come. As energy prices rise to levels that threaten to bankrupt many poorer families, the pressure on the struggling homelessness directorate could increase significantly. For some families, the question of whether the council has the competence and capacity to help will matter a lot.
Many of the conversations we’ve had at TA facilities over the past six months have been sad — sad because the blocks they are living in are mostly grey, gloomy places that limit their freedoms and eat away at their sense of autonomy and independence. But also because so many of the people we’ve met don’t seem to understand the nature of the purgatory they find themselves in, and just how long it will take to get out.
Luke, a young man we met at a former hotel in Fallowfield, didn’t know what we meant when we asked if he was on the social housing waiting list. The hotel is cordoned off from the street by a six-foot high wall, and its building is rundown and stained. One windowsill has a half-empty milk bottle and a tub of olive spread on it.
So far, he has lived here for just three months. How did he end up here? A friend’s girlfriend kicked him out of the flat he was staying in, he explains. At the age of two, he moved to the UK from Spain. Things curdled when he was 13 — his mum died, his dad went back to Spain, and he went into care. For the past few years, he has been one of the city’s “hidden homeless”, drifting between friends’ houses, and now he’s ended up here: an in-between place.
Something occurred to him. He started clicking his fingers at his friend, animated by the thought. "No, no, wait. You mean Manchester Move?" he says, referring to the city’s housing portal. "Yeah, yeah, I'm just waiting on that now.” He nods, very sure of himself. “Should be out of here soon."
To contact us about this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Design and graphics by Richard Heap.
In our follow-up piece, we look at the companies housing Manchester’s homeless. Posing as landlords, we are offered help to evict our tenants so our properties can be leased to the council as temporary accommodation. Are the companies making millions housing the homeless also creating homelessness themselves?