A homeless man is crying during a television interview. The man is Wes Hall, former spokesman of the Sock Exchange, “a hub for Manchester’s homeless”squatted by Hall and others a few days previously. Footballers Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs allowed the group to stay in the building until February.
To a grinning liberal Left, the footballers confirmed their images as working-class lads done good who would never “forget their roots”. The Manchester homeless community has been portrayed in mainstream media as unwaveringly thankful to the pair. The act of charity seems as universally celebrated as it is disempowering, divisive and ultimately repressive.
Occupying empty buildings to house yourself and others is an act of collective autonomy. The Sock Exchange has morphed from homeless self-organisation to nouveau riche charity and presented a disempowering narrative for homeless and poor people in the process. Hall and his fellow squatters have been reduced from autonomous subjects, squatting to house themselves, to passive objects crying for the television cameras. Even when not being victimised, homeless people are presented as victims.
This disempowerment is as physical as it is symbolic. Already, the Sock Exchange “leadership” has collaborated with the owners to evict those deemed more“antisocial” from the building. Other homeless people have been recorded trying to force entry by the new CCTV installed inside and out. People now living there have received threats from those they used to share pitches with. Psychologists and security guards have been employed by the owners to keep the peace. For the privilege of a roof, the group have lost their self-determination to the will of the well-meaning rich and, with it, their unity with the larger homeless community.
Just as sinisterly, the story has been used to cover up or justify the economic regeneration and exclusivity at work there. The fact that Neville and Giggs are developing the property into an upmarket hotel and members’ club is ignored or mentioned in passing as if insignificant. The rich are not as bad as we thought, we are told. Some of them put money in our begging pots.
Time and again, squatting shows the collective ability to house ourselves away from repressive state or charity housing systems. Having reproduced the latter, The Sock Exchange has become a disturbing story of co-option and its damaging effects.
Back in Manchester, Wes Hall is refused entry by those who feel his collaboration with the owners is enough. The repression seems as immediate to them as it seems in the speedy mainstream media.