No-one would seriously argue that Manchester Night Shelter in the late 1970s was anything but a doss house. It was almost derelict, having previously been a run-down Victorian school building. The large rooms on each floor stank of urine, with sodden bare boards, wet stone stairs, and beds and mattresses thrown everywhere. The staff did what was possible but the conditions were awful. There had been a room set aside for homeless women, but even in these desperate circumstances this room was a horrendous place, so the night shelter became for homeless men only. Many were heavy drinkers, and being destitute this meant a drink called Jake, a mixture of surgical spirit and water. The building closed during the day, whatever the weather, to allow the minimal of cleaning possible.
I was one of a group of student volunteers who went in on an evening rota, mostly to talk and make sandwiches which we sold at cost price, about 2p a round. We bought the supplies from the cheapest shop and mashed margarine and fish paste together in large tubs to spread over loaves of basic sliced bread. I was also involved in a local campaign to have the night shelter closed and replaced with better alternative housing. A few others of the staff and committee members were also members of this campaign. Looking back, I can see that some of my colleagues – both in the volunteering group and in the campaigning group – couldn’t understand or perhaps trust my position of being active in both. But to me it was clear. The volunteering was for surviving today, and the campaigning was for a better tomorrow.
Manchester Night Shelter was a charity and a limited company. After a year or so volunteering I was elected onto the management committee. Nearly all its income came from the Department of Health and Social Security, the DHSS. There was a small grant from Manchester City Council, but the council at the time was in no hurry to either improve the provision for homeless people in their area, nor to close the place down for public safety and health reasons. Homeless people didn’t matter, and any doss house was a good enough alternative to street sleeping, in their view. There had been a new law recently, the Homeless Persons Act 1977, but councils were only obliged to provide for homeless families with children, not for homeless couples and not for single homeless people. Hence the campaign.
The night shelter staff took careful details of each occupant when they first arrived, and would make sure the person visited the DHSS office nearby the next day to start getting what little benefits they could. This gave the person a small weekly payment and the night shelter a minimal rent. The low rental payments and the small council grant were not enough to cover costs, and fundraising from charity appeals and trusts was a perpetual task just to pay the bills.
So, now being on the management committee we had a discussion on income, and we were told that the local DHSS office had rule whereby they would only pay a limited amount to the night shelter for each person because the provision was so awful. Which left us in a bind, because we could not afford to improve the conditions until the income grew.
At this point I went to a shop in the city centre called Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, HMSO, where they sold all the government publications including copies of each law. The DHSS was administering payments called Supplementary Benefit, which was paid to people as a safety net when they were not eligible for more generous benefits. The rules for Supplementary Benefit were set out in detail in Statutory Instruments, a type of law which can be used to add the fine detail to an Act of Parliament. I bought a copy of the relevant Statutory Instrument and took it home to study.
As suspected, nowhere in the law did it give the power to a local DHSS office to impose a lower rent ceiling for overnight accommodation because of poor conditions. The assumption was that it was the job of the local council to close down anywhere that had unacceptable housing standards.
So I drafted a letter to the local DHSS office saying just this, including an exact extract from the relevant pages of the legal powers. I added that our staff had been making this point in various ways to them for some time now so we expected back payments as well. I just managed to type all this on one side of paper, which I felt was important as I saw it as a campaigning leaflet as much as a letter, and I co-signed it with the General Manager who was the head of the paid staff.
The key point here was that I sent copies of the letter with covering letters to the local MP, to the Minister in charge of the DHSS, to the council, and to some national bodies. This was campaigning politics as I knew it would be the national copies that would matter.
Within just a couple of days the local DHSS invited the staff members in for a meeting, at which they conceded every point and more than doubled the rent being paid as well as paying the substantial arrears. After the meeting, a DHSS official said to a staff member that no-one wanted to handle the local meeting because there was such fierce interest from the very top of the department. Even the regional officials would not get involved to defend the local office. Our staff were careful to keep a good working relationship with the local officials, sympathising with them for feeling abandoned by their hierarchy.
We were clear what to do with the boost in income, and it wasn’t about putting the night shelter on a permanent footing. We could now pay the monthly salaries without staff fearing bankruptcy, we installed a proper fire alarm system and renewed the old electrics, we put down hygienic washable floor coverings, made the toilets decent, we installed washing and drying machines for the men to use, and we improved a health care room used by visiting nurses. It was a massive boost and a turning point for the organisation, which went on to wind down and close the doss house and replace it with a tailored range of decent hostels and supported flats for single homeless people.
Why tell this story now, 35 years later?
Just after we achieved this victory I was in the general office doing some paperwork when a radical member of staff came up and said to me in an aggrieved tone, ‘the staff did most of the work for this, you know‘. My reply was that, ‘I don’t want any medals‘, to which nothing more was said.
Why now, is, we need case studies of successful campaigns which are not loaded with ego.
The main lessons for me from this case study are:
1. Research and investigate the issue in as much detail as you possibly can. Go back to the original documents, the basic law, the facts of the case. Put the graft in.
2. Use letters like campaign leaflets, short but with the details where necessary, written to engage the onlooker as well as the recipient.
3. Be generous in victory, it is always a team effort, a collective result.