Manchester City Council is facing a human rights challenge to its possession order on the Homeless Camp at Albert Square, outside the town hall. The Camp sprang up a week ago, following a Homeless Action march last Wednesday, and around twenty people have been living in tents as a protest against their plight ever since.
On Monday, Manchester City Council served a possession order on `persons unknown' at the Camp but solicitors got a stay of execution at Manchester County Court (see previous Salford Star article – click here). The case will now be heard Friday 24th April at 10:30am*, when homeless people will be challenging the possession order under three articles of the Human Rights Act - and, in a strange twist, under the Housing Act in which the local authority has a duty to house the homeless, rather than evicting them from their current tented home.
"For the people who are living on Albert Square, that land is now their home and they have protection under Human Rights Act article 8" says Ben Taylor of WTB Solicitors who has been representing two of the Camp's residents "The court has to respect an individual's home and only evict if it is legitimate and proportionate to do so. I don't believe that the court went through that exercise to assess those rights and to determine whether those rights should have been legitimately interfered with."
He added that the Camp is an act of protest and that, under Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act, any eviction would be interfering with people's right to freedom of expression. But it's the third legal challenge that is potentially the most interesting and the most embarrassing for Manchester Council...
"Manchester City Council own the land and have brought these proceedings; but under the Housing Act 1996 Manchester Council also has obligations and duties to assess and provide accommodation to the homeless who are unintentionally homeless and have a priority need" Ben Taylor explains "It strikes me, and it's patently obvious, that those people on the Square are homeless. It may be that some of those individuals are unintentionally homeless, and, for instance, have been evicted from properties maybe through no fault of their own. It may be that some of those individuals have a priority need. The definition of `priority need' is someone who is vulnerable or who has children under the age of 16. If any of them are unintentionally homeless with priority need, the local authority has an obligation to re-home them.
"I would have liked and preferred to have seen Manchester City Council, instead of taking proceedings to evict, first to investigate whether any of the individuals on the land have homeless issues that the local authority has an obligation to address" he adds "If they have not, that is my third criticism to evicting people from the land."
In other words, Manchester City Council is actually attempting to evict homeless people from their homes on its land, who it actually has a duty of care to house. Yesterday, Coffee4Craig, which helps to find places to stay for the homeless in Salford and Manchester, told the Salford Star that there were no bed spaces in the whole of Manchester. Which is exactly what the Camp protest is about.
"I think Manchester Council should come up with a better solution than eviction" says Scott, a Salfordian who is resident at the Camp "In one shelter the most you get is maybe two nights and then you're back on the streets. I'd like a flat so we'll be here as long it takes to get them to change their policies. The public has been brilliant, they're impressed by what we're doing and say everyone should join up together and make it bigger like in London."
What is striking about the Camp, and most embarrassing for Manchester City Council, is that it's right in the middle of the city centre with obvious signs of wealth all around – from the tourists taking photos by the fountain, to the chic bars on the far side of Albert Square. All over town, massive office developments and million pound apartments have sprung up, yet the Camp is a very visual reminder of the divide that's more obvious in Manchester than even Salford. Every single set of poverty indicators that the Salford Star prints has Salford near the top, but Manchester at number one.
"They're not looking after their own" says Joanne, originally from Salford and now resident at the Camp "Because we can't speak for ourselves they just fob you off. I saw a housing officer and he said `Present yourself as homeless' but every time I do they just tell me to go away."
Joanne tells a horrific story of being made homeless after fleeing from violence, how she's been subject to sexual assaults, and the struggle she's had to make sure the younger of her sons is safe and able to complete his education... "I'm a hairdresser by trade" she adds "And now I'm here in this tent, living out of bags, trying to get myself a house. It's wrong, absolutely wrong.
"I've not come out of the tent for a week because it's like everyone's looking down on you but we're peaceful and we hope to make people listen" she explains "People are sitting closer to the Camp now particularly at dinner time; I think they're seeing that there must be a reason why we're still here. People are also coming at night with massive donations. It's all love and hopefully we'll be able to do something about it.
"I feel safe here and everyone's looking out for each other" she says "I'm just sitting and waiting to see who's going to help me – but my boys are waiting for me. I'm a good parent and I've done it right."
The Camp has been helped by RAPAR, which exists to work with displaced people whose human rights are under threat or being violated.... "We formed in Salford in 2001 when people, mostly young single refugee men from Afghanistan and Iraq, began to be forcibly dispersed to the city by the Government" recalls RAPAR founding member Dr Rhetta Moran
"Then, local people - both residents and workers - were already very already frustrated about housing and related service needs that had not been addressed over years" she adds "When we came across this camp of homeless people in Albert Square on Monday, we immediately began to talk with them. They too are displaced - but in this case they are British citizens. We opened up our networks to enable the camp members to speak directly for themselves and to access appropriate legal support.
"The process is in its very early stages but RAPAR is committed to the protection and expansion of basic human rights, like safe shelter for all, whoever we are and wherever we come from" she explains "That's why this Saturday we will be at the demonstration at 5:30pm in Piccadilly Gardens to highlight the deaths of refugees in the Mediterranean - and to be part of developing understanding and action that can stop such terrible things from happening in the world."
* The Camp's challenge to the possession order will be heard Friday 24th April at 10:30am (changed from next Tuesday at 2pm) Manchester County Court
For updates on the Camp see Rapar website page - click here
And the Facebook page Homeless Rights of Justice - click here
Photos by Steven Speed