Lessons of Cornerhouse

The Cornerhouse is a former theatre in Manchester squatted from January to August 2017 by self-organised homeless people linked to the Manchester Activist Network. This is their story.

As the final pieces of our belongings, donations and clothes were brought out of the infamous Cornerhouse it was time for Manchester Activist Network to reflect back on six months of occupation. From the Loose Space festival and surviving three eviction attempts, to the rough sleepers we housed and three other squats opened over that time, this had been a busy, and at times stressful but productive period that none of us will ever forget.

The biggest thing that came out of the Cornerhouse was a reaffirmation of the need for solidarity when we are faced with big issues. In order to fully tackle rough sleeping and stop the rise in homelessness we all need to be prepared to give a little of ourselves. Not money, but from inside of us. We need constructive dialogues, we need to drop the egos, forget about the “company line,” reflect on what we put our energies into and how we can change as individuals. Only then can we better the systemic problem that is homelessness.

Our experience of the Cornerhouse starts with Loose Space, a five-week festival we held. It was a double-edged sword. It did exactly what we hoped it would; bring artists and the community together with activists, and enable a sharing of ideologies and effort. However this came at a cost to many of us personally as it tested our bonds of friendship and ideology, and was physically and mentally draining. I think we would all agree though that it had more positives than negatives.

We are still here solid as a group, at time of writing have three squats and have brought in new faces who have given additional energy in areas we did not have access to before, like film, social media, arts/crafts, healing, contact through the MMU and fundraising for three worthy charities. All of these were goals before the festival, so in my eyes it was a great success.

It has taught us a lot more about squatting, particularly when you have a group of around 40 people. There is a need for different types of squats: Residential, Activist, Arts and Healing are all very different places to live in, however they are essential for any group who wish to be active and create intentional communities to allow the various mix of people, personalities and energy to have the space in which to flourish and be productive to the whole.

Homelessness will never end. We are not the people to end it and no-one should look to us in that way, however, there is a need for us in this city right now. There are many who publicly don’t endorse us, yet behind close doors recognise that we provide a service that is lacking at the moment across the UK, not just Manchester. We can as a city end rough sleeping though and this is what we put our energy into at the Cornerhouse.

It is not easy. Dealing with issues that are the causes of homelessness range from drug addition, alcoholism, abuse, youth homelessness, mental illness and the disabled; the list goes on, it is very draining on those individuals that take on mentoring roles, and for people around them as they try to rebuild their lives. We firmly believe now, more than ever, what we did at the Cornerhouse was the right thing to do, and we will continue to do this. Our community of squats grows, and will resolutely put pressure on the council and the associated bodies in Manchester by taking high-profile council buildings and iconic structures in Manchester. Just as rough sleeping doesn’t stop overnight, neither will we.

Council failures

Finally, one part of the experience has left a bitter taste in the mouth for many of us. Dealing with politicians. We had a running dialogue with Andrew Lightfoot (CEO, Combined Authority), Mike Wright (Strategic Lead for Homelessness, Combined Authority) Paul Dennett (Mayor of Salford) Beth Knowles (Lead to ending rough sleeping, Labour Council), Ivan Lewis MP, and finally Andrew Burnham (Gtr Manchester Mayor). We had been told that meetings were being arranged with the Mayor and his team, that Beth, Ivan and Paul were coming to visit the squat to see what we did.

We attended the meetings, stayed calm, talked passionately but articulately and tried to engage the people with the power. Where did this leave us? With a broken promise that we would be told the week of eviction to enable us to get some of the more vulnerable members to a new squat, so they were not left to walk the street. That we would be granted a private meeting with Mayor Burnham, and an ignored request from us to postpone any eviction until we had the meetings to give us the best chance to prepare our arguments and points of view.

For me the trust will never be rebuilt and this is the same for many of us, personally it will change the way in which I organise around issues for the remainder of my life.

To wrap things up, the last six months have been a whirlwind of situations, people, buildings, friends, new ideologies and much to ponder. We must however not let our personal stories take the limelight. This is about ALL of us. You, me, the rough sleeper, the abused child, the struggling mum, the mentally ill, to the lonely migrant. This is not just about homelessness either, it is about helping people learn that the time has come for a new paradigm. The old one has run its course, capitalism only fully works for the haves, not the have nots. It only serves a small proportion of the global population and not the many. So now is the time for us to put aside our individual activism issues, come together as one and make change happen. This is the only campaign and it goes on, we only hope that you will start with us today.

Nick Napier
Manchester Activist Network