Fill ‘Em Up! We launch empty homes campaign

In parts of the UK, there are 10 empty homes for every homeless family. We look at what can be done to bring empties back into use

You know British housing is in bad shape when a football pundit offers a more enlightened approach to homelessness than the leaders of the country’s third largest city.

A generous gesture by former Manchester United star Gary Neville captured the public imagination earlier this month. Neville allowed a group of 30 homeless men to use an empty building in Manchester city centre that he and Ryan Giggs are turning into a hotel.

Calling themselves the “Sock Exchange” (the soon-to-be hotel was once city’s Stock Exchange), the rough sleepers were stunned to find Neville sympathetic to their plight.

They came to an arrangement: the men can sleep there over the winter months, before vacating the empty hotel on January 22. One of the men, Wesley Hall, said he “burst into tears” when Neville told him they could stay until building work starts.

“I think it’s phenomenal – I think more people should do what he’s doing.”

So what about Manchester City Council? Last week it ordered bailiffs to clear a camp of homeless people on the grounds of Manchester Metropolitan University. This follows an attempt at the end of last month to fine and jail people living in tents across the city centre.

It just doesn’t make sense to try to criminalise homeless people

Solicitor Ben Taylor, who successfully defended seven men charged with breaching a council injunction, remains staggered it ever came to court.

“We have a reduction in the availability of hostel accommodation, there isn’t enough council housing stock, there’s a lack of affordable housing, and the bedroom tax is biting – it just doesn’t make sense to try to criminalise homeless people,” Taylor adds.

It may make no sense , yet several other councils are also trying to prosecute their way out of the problem of people sleeping on the streets. Local authorities in Oxford and Newport recently approved the use of Public Space Protection Orders, giving them the power to fine homeless people for sleeping rough.

The Neville offer in Manchester shows there is another way. It acknowledged the reality of the men’s situation, rather than try to push reality on elsewhere, out of sight, out of mind.

And it showed a flexible, common-sense willingness to use a resource, even on a short-term basis, which Britain has in abundance: empty buildings.

There is a growing frustration at the terrible waste of so many boarded-up properties in towns and cities across the country. The latest estimate from the Empty Homes Agency is that there are more than 635,000 empty homes in England alone, and more than 200,000 of them are empty long-term (six months or more).

This means there are 10 empty homes for every one homeless family in England. According to figures collated by The Guardian from agencies across the EU, more than 11 million homes lie empty across Europe – enough to house all of the continent’s homeless twice over.

Filling empty homes is not easy. It’s true that many of Britain’s derelict buildings are now in bad condition. Homeless people often have complex needs, requiring a lot of support even once they have a roof over their head. And yes, the ownership issues around unused second homes, vacant shops and public halls awaiting redevelopment are complex.

But there remains a staggering need for housing in this country and an embarrassment of unused buildings are just waiting to be given new life. Gary Neville’s gesture shows small steps to provide shelter don’t actually need to be that difficult, with a bit of flexibility and imagination.

I see the amazing potential in individuals who have been written off by society

One project in Blackpool shows why homeless people – even those coming from hostels and rough sleeping scenarios – can salvage empty homes and make a go of it, given the chance.

Steve Hodgkins, a police officer with Lancashire Constabulary, currently on a full-time secondment, has set up a social enterprise called Jobs, Friends and Houses (JFH). The project has seen 39 homeless people, ex-offenders and addicts in recovery welcomed onto the team. They’ve been set to work renovating derelict terraced houses while working towards trade apprenticeships.

In its first year, in partnership with a local property developer, JFH completed refurbishment work on seven rundown properties. This means some team members have been able to move into the very homes they’ve helped rescue (while the others have found stable accommodation elsewhere).

Around 30 per cent of the FJH workforce has been homeless, proving that providing homes and changing lives needn’t always be a long, procedural slog. “We’ve had people come from a rock-bottom situation – hostels, sleeping in doorways, sofa-surfing – and then turn things around completely,” Hodgkins explains.

“I see the amazing potential in individuals who have been written off by society,” he adds. “We try to help them change their identity. They stop being a label – homeless, ex-addict, ex-offender or whatever, and they start becoming Mr Jones the plumber.”

Encouraging things are happening elsewhere. Many councils now have an empty homes team to at least identify where empty properties are, and central government grants launched in 2013 have boosted small, community-led refurbishment projects.

In Leicester, the Action on Empty Homes scheme has turned 14 empty council properties into good-quality, affordable homes for people leaving homeless hostels. And in London, Big Issue Invest – the social investment arm of The Big Issue Group – has supported PHASES, a project offering homeless ex-servicemen a route into the building trade as they renovate empty homes in the capital.

Last week BBC viewers watched Nick Knowles’ DIY SOS team of volunteer builders (with a little help from Prince William and Prince Harry) transform a derelict terraced street in Manchester into 26 homes for ex-servicemen struggling to cope with life on Civvy Street.

Knowles told The Big Issue why the programme is the “most rewarding” television he makes.

“It highlights a lot of the people who have fallen through the cracks and it’s great to see working-class heroes come out and assist them,” he says. “The show gives us the opportunity to point out where we fall short as a society. We need to look after people who are struggling.”

What more could be done? The IPPR think tank believes councils should be given more powers to tax people not using second homes. The IPPR wonks sensibly suggest the existing cap on the “empty homes council tax premium” should be removed, allowing councils to create higher premiums.

Columnist Simon Jenkins last week suggested the growing number of empty churches could be transformed into community hubs hosting libraries, post offices and WiFi cafes. Encouragingly, such things are already happening in some of the most forward-thinking Church of England parishes.

Some local authorities are beginning to relax rules and adapt to changes in the planning system, allowing empty shops and offices to be turned into housing. Another good idea, if appropriate conversions can be done.

So let’s do more. Saying it’s all too difficult or suggesting homeless people won’t be “ready” to be housed – these are no longer good enough excuses for inaction.

Britain’s abundance of empty buildings is a fantastic opportunity to increase housing supply for those who would so dearly love a key, a front door and a roof over their head.

HOW TO GET INVOLVED

Frustrated by all the boarded-up buildings in your town while homelessness is on the rise? Here are six ways of doing something about it:

  1. You can report empty properties to your local authority – many councils now have dedicated empty homes officers who would welcome photos showing the condition of the building and its address.
  2. Save Britain’s Heritage has a register of Buildings at Risk highlighting properties that are vacant and in need of new owners – see more atsavebritainsheritage.org
  3. You can find more details on how to bring an empty home back into use from Empty Homes Agency. In Scotland, Shelter Scotland run a service allowing people to report empty homes and receive advice about bringing their empty home back into use.
  4. One London company –youspotproperty.com– even gives you vouchers and a small proportion of the resale value of any empty house you spot that they manage to refurbish and sell.
  5. If you’re inspired by Gary Neville’s gesture towards the homeless men in Manchester, Depaul UK’s Nightstopscheme allows volunteer hosts to provide emergency accommodation for homeless young people.
  6. Give us new ideas – tell us your solutions for transforming public buildings in you town, city or village. Send them to editorial@bigissue.comor tweet @BigIssue