Housing

Homeless charity transforms Ford Transit van to help rough sleepers with food, hygiene and shelter

For eight years, the Manchester Homelessness Partnership (MHP) has been offering help with food, hygiene and shelter. Shikhar Talwar tags along

A blue transit van

Manchester Homeless Partnership’s van, which has been fitted with a shower, microwave and sink. Image: Shikhar Talwar

As cost of living pressure rises across the UK, grassroots groups are plugging the gaps left by local services to support people experiencing big issues like homelessness. 

Manchester has eight times more homeless people than any other city in the north-west. For eight years, the Manchester Homelessness Partnership (MHP) has been offering help with food, hygiene and shelter. Earlier this year, the charity bought a second-hand Ford Transit van. They equipped it with a shower, microwave, and sink, and created space for rough sleepers who may require transport to a shelter.  

 On a Thursday night, I join the team on their rounds. Laura Smith, a volunteer for the charity, said that they run the van every Tuesday and Thursday night across the city’s busiest areas. 

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“We try to reach as many people as possible in these two nights,” she says. “It’s hard to be able to help everyone, because of our small team and lack of funding, but if by the end of the night, I am even able to help 10 people then that’s a job well done for me.”  

At 8pm, while it is still light outside, we start our journey. Heading past the University of Manchester we reach Manchester Metropolitan University. Here we meet Alfred, sitting on the side of the footpath. Seeing Alfred, Smith parks the van, grabs a box of protein bars and goes to speak to him. He’s asked what kind of help he needs tonight. Picking up a bar, Alfred says: “I’m short [of money] for getting a shelter for tonight.” 

A man sits on the pavement taking food offered
Alfred picks up the protein bar offered by Laura. Image: Shikhar Talwar

Smith offers Alfred a spot in the van to ride along and get off wherever he thinks he might be able to make up the difference. 

 In the van, Alfred begins to explain what his situation has been for the past few years: “I used to work in corner shops and often do odd jobs, such as offloading vans or Deliveroo driver when I got the chance,” he says. “However, I only ever had enough to make ends meet. It’s not fun to be out here and having to beg for a living. I tried to get a job as a cleaner in a pub, they accepted me and kept me for a month, but then they too felt the heat of the [cost of living] crisis and had to shut the pub down.”  

Interrupting our conversation, Smith points to the Mancunian Way, an elevated ring road around Manchester’s city centre. “The area below this road has become a hub for homeless people in recent years,” she says. “I guess it’s a place to stay away from the rain.” 

We drive into the centre of the city and stop in Deansgate. As the local nightlife kicks off, students can be seen in their hundreds. In the dimly lit alleys between venues, the van stops and Smith gets out again to talk to Missy.

Missy had set up her shelter in this alley. She gets out of a sleeping bag, surrounded by mud made worse by the rain, and comes to shake Smith’s hand with a large smile on her face. She asks if she can use the shower for tonight, not only for her but also her sleeping bag.  

Missy has a dog with her, which she asks me to hold as she takes a shower. She leaves her sleeping bag in the sink with the tap running and off she goes.  

While we’re dogsitting, Smith tells me that Missy has grown tired of life in Manchester. Every job she has tried to find has always asked her for a bank account, which can be hard to get without proof of address. Missy is only 27, but her parents abandoned her when she was in her early teens.

Meanwhile, Alfred gets out of the van and goes around the club queues asking for money. He is pushed around and yelled at by bouncers. For him, this is a regular occurrence. Soon he returns with a smile on his face and the cash he needs in his hands.

As Missy leaves, I ask what this van means to her. “It’s something that helps me loads,” she says. 

“Every Thursday when it comes here, I get on to take a shower or to heat some food. I get extremely happy when they pull up. It may not be as much as I want in life, but it is some support that I am getting, and I couldn’t be happier for it.”  

For the rest of the night, we keep driving across the city. We drop Alfred off at his shelter and find others in need of support, some keen to use the shower, while others just want to heat up their ready-meals.  

At midnight, I head home. The next day I meet up with Smith at 9am. She brings her van to Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile’. Out of the doors come a mother and child. The woman wishes to stay anony-mous but says: “I am a Polish immigrant. I was brought here after I got married to a British man, but I didn’t realise how abusive this relationship was.  

A woman and child
The mother walks towards Curry Mile, where she lives. Image: Shikhar Talwar

“I was university-educated and married as soon as I graduated. But once I came here I was forced to stay in the house and not work. And no one wants to employ someone who has never been in the workforce. I am recently divorced, I knew it was the right thing to do when my husband slapped me when I announced I was pregnant. To make ends meet, I started working with The Big Issue, and [doing] odd jobs.”

She is one of over 3,500 people in Manchester who rely on bed and breakfasts for a temporary roof over their heads and have to keep moving at irregular intervals. However, she is optimistic. “I see these volunteers who really want to help me, and I feel like no matter how bleak the situation, there is light at the end of the tunnel for me.” 

Shikhar Talwar is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme. Find out more about Manchester Homelessness Partnership here

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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