The figure in the Royal Exchange doorway is motionless.
It’s 8.45am. Commuters are rushing through St Ann’s Square in the icy drizzle, heads bent over coffee cups as drama quietly plays out nearby.
Kelly is vaguely known to the council’s homelessness team, but they don’t know her well.
“I’ve not come to arrest you, I’m here to help,” says homeless officer Darren, as she stirs slightly in her sleeping bag.
But it’s too early for conversation. She was ‘shouting a bit’ earlier on though, says Kevin, the Big Issue seller nearby, so she’ll be up and about soon. The officers decide to come back a bit later.
A rough sleeper outside House of Fraser
The crumpled sleeping bag in the theatre doorway – destitution on the steps of high culture – has a symbolism echoed throughout Manchester city centre in 2016.
From House of Fraser to the Palace theatre to the Malmaison hotel, poverty now languishes uncomfortably visibly next to privilege.
People respond to symbols. And the public is now increasingly worried by a homeless population booming at the same rate as the cranes on the skyline.
Manchester council is facing a tenfold increase in rough sleeping since 2010 at exactly the same time budgets in every part of the system are being cut. Homeless officers Darren and Carl are on the front line.
It is bitterly cold when I join them on their regular loop of rough sleeping spots, from the town hall to Piccadilly, down Portland Street, Oxford Street and Deansgate.
Former rough sleeper-turned Big Issue seller Kevin stands in front of the Royal Exchange
Darren and Carl don’t take food out to the doorways. Their job is to offer advice about how to sort their benefits out and get into housing, to try and get people off the streets for good.
But it isn’t easy. They have to play the long game with people like Kelly. Around 90pc of rough sleepers have drug or alcohol issues. A significant proportion have mental health problems. We find around 20 people on our two-hour walk, not all of whom want to engage.
On Moseley Street we find two men sleeping under scaffolding near a bank, who neither Darren or Carl have seen before.
“We’re from the council,” they say. “Do you need any help finding accommodation?”
One of them stirs.
“What do you want?” he demands. “You got any food?”
They explain they’re there to help them into housing. The man pulls the sleeping bag back back over his head.
A Latvian man on Piccadilly refuses to even look at us when we first approach.
But then he recognises Carl and his face lights up. His palm shoots out from under his blanket to shake hands. Yes, he is trying to sort out the problem with his passport, he says. The Booth Centre – the drop-in over in Strangeways – is helping. His English is very bad.
One in four rough sleepers here is an EU rather than a British national, the officers tell me.
A commuter passes a rough sleeper on Deansgate
For many kids who end up on their own at 16 or 17, often after leaving care, they have several false starts, he says. They struggle to budget their money, struggle to avoid the temptation of quick fixes.
“A lot of times on their first go they will lose their accommodation. The second time round they have been there, so they kind of know. I have had a lot of people come back to the service two or three years later and say ‘yeah, I’ve been an idiot’.”
We walk past a young couple from another Greater Manchester borough. Daniel knows them. They both heavily use drugs and flit in and out of services, he says, but the boyfriend has a strong hold over the girlfriend and a history of domestic abuse.
He can’t make them accept his help, but he’ll be back out again on his rounds in a couple of days.
The persistence can pay off.
Outside the Malmaison Simon, a man in his 40s, greets the team with a smile. He was kicked out by his girlfriend and ended up on the streets, but now has a place at a specialised homeless hostel in Ardwick.
It has been set up recently to be more flexible than some of the others. Its residents can bring dogs and drug use is not a bar to entry. It has 24-hour support. Although he’s on the street when we see him, he’ll be going up to the Booth Centre drop-in shortly and has been able to get onto benefits so he can start looking for a place to live.
Just around the corner on Portland Street, under the overhang outside Spar, we meet Leighton, a regular face. He is delighted when he finds out I’m from the M.E.N.
A rough sleeper in the doorway of the Palace Theatre
Leighton has been on the streets for between a year and 18 months. He’s from Rochdale and – like so many – came to the city centre because he’d heard there was more support here than at home.
But because he isn’t from Manchester he’s struggling to actually get housing. He is bouncing backwards and forwards from one local authority to another.
Yet he is incredibly positive about the help he’s getting. He goes to the Booth Centre every day. They are hugely supportive, he says.
What about the public?
“Not too bad, actually. Some are nice.
“Some can be downright evil… just the way they look at me because I’m on the streets and they’re not. They don’t know what it’s like.”
I ask him if there’s a job he wants to do. He has a qualification in childcare, it turns out, and he wants to work with vulnerable and disabled children.
One rough sleeper I meet says he wants to be a traffic warden. “Watch out or I’ll ticket you,” he jokes. Ben, the lad sitting in the shadow of the town hall who is off to work on the Preston farm in a fortnight, wants to be a sound engineer.
Manchester council has expanded its homeless team in the last year, partly in response to the rising numbers, but also – inevitably – thanks to rising pressure from a concerned public.
A council homelessness worker talks to a rough sleeper on Deansgate
While the council has come under fire from many quarters for apparently being slow on the uptake, more concerned with regeneration than rough sleeping, public opinion can also change surprisingly fast.
In November 2014 the M.E.N. did a survey to find out where people would cut the council’s budget in order to balance the books.
The results called for homelessness and refugee budget to be slashed by a third.
As we walk the streets it also becomes apparent that a war being waged in the city centre. Battle lines have been drawn. Increasingly businesses are realising they can block off space they own to keep out rough sleepers.
Officers nod to hoardings that have sprung up on Deansgate over a walkway that was a previous sleeping spot.
“That wasn’t there last week,” notes one.
(I ask if there are ever any rough sleepers in Spinningfields, the gleaming privately-owned district just off Deansgate. No, they say. Never.)
Similarly a space on Portland Street, space near to the Spar where Leighton is sitting, has been cordoned off with metal bars.
The homeless are striking back, though. Just as outside Manchester Metropolitan University the protest camp shut themselves off last summer, eventually to be booted out, so we find two rough sleepers under scaffolding on Deansgate.
They have created a cardboard home for themselves, using a shop front and boxes as walls. Craig tells me he has been there several months. He got out of prison for arson a while back but hasn’t managed to get into housing.
Rough sleeper Craig next to his spot on Deansgate
With a crime like arson on your CV, getting a landlord to take you will be easier said than done.
In the doorway of House of Fraser, underneath a sign reading ‘the Big Brand Sale: Can YOU resist?’ another young man lies in a sleeping bag, a water bottle of brown drink close at hand. It is too early for him to really chat.
But Darren adds the man to a list of people booked in to see him at the town hall later in the morning to discuss benefits and housing options. If one out of the four he has booked in today arrives, that will be a good result, he says.
As we near the end of our tour we come across Kevin, the Big Issue seller in St Ann’s Square. Behind him Kelly is lying in the Royal Exchange doorway, not moving. That used to be him, he freely admits.
How come it’s not anymore?
“I got to 40 and someone said to me: ‘How come you never see any old smackheads?’ And ‘I said because they’re all dead’,” he laughs darkly.
“And then I realised.” He eventually kicked the habit and is now in a Northwards housing flat.
“You can’t get off the streets unless you’re clean. You’ve got to want it to work.”
But, as the previous cold, damp two hours had shown, that is a lot easier said than done.