Oliver Martin in Piccadilly Gardens

“Spice victims!” a well dressed woman said as she walked past us in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, where we were sat together, wrapped in sleeping bags at the entrance of a bank. It was late in the evening as late winter was turning into early spring. At this time of year, it is still cold, yet on a Friday night, punters like the well dressed woman wore only one layer of clothing on their way to bars and clubs; those of us on the streets would be wearing no less than two. Four of us were sat in the doorway and Jack* and I made remarks back to the woman, expressing our offence at being called “spice victims”.

This small disagreement represents one of the most significantly difficult things to deal with psychologically when homeless (especially street homeless), and that is being lumped in with various negative stereotypes that go hand-in-hand with public perceptions around homeless people. In Manchester, the spice problem seems to be at epidemic levels and the issue has reached national news coverage. Those of us sat at the doorway – Jack, Ben*, Katy* and I – have nothing to do with the drug, a set of chemicals designed as synthetic cannabinoids, which appear to be incredibly addictive and dangerous both psychologically and physically. A source within Greater Manchester Police informed me that retail distribution of the drug is concentrated in Piccadilly Gardens and so a majority of homeless individuals – or those that pretend to be homeless in order to beg – congregate in the area.

Manchester homeless
The bank doorway where Oliver and friends used to sleep. Still in use by the looks of it, with someone’s bedding piled up (bottom left).

At the time of that remark being made, we took issue with being associated with the negative news coverage that has come to define Manchester’s homeless community, yet we cannot deny the fact that this drug has had tremendously negative effects on the homeless community. Of the four of us sat in the bank doorway (which was then our place to sleep), only I partook of drugs on a recreational basis, and spice wasn’t one of my drugs of choice, nor will it ever be. Jack and I drank – sometimes too much – as did Katy occasionally and Ben’s only vice was an unhealthy intake of caffeinated energy drinks. Regardless of these facts, some passers-by would see us as representative of the spice epidemic, merely because we were living on the streets.

Furthermore, in the circle of people I associated with on a personal level on the streets, none of them took spice. This circle amounted to approximately ten people. We are only describing the visible homeless people here – you may well be sitting in a Starbucks having your morning coffee before work and I may be sitting across from you. You would have no idea that I was homeless, because I tried my best to not fit the stereotype where possible. It was easy enough in the day but not so much at night when you’re wrapped in a sleeping bag with your mates, sleeping in shop doorways, looking out for one another (the homeless community is rife with theft, as in theft between homeless people).

Anyone can end up homeless

One thing that becomes apparent after spending time on the street, in shelters and in hostels is that the demographics that make up the homeless community are incredibly varied. A close friend of mine ran his own garage for many years before losing it after becoming victim to an extortion racket. Another one worked as a civil servant for decades before becoming a career for his terminally ill partner who sadly died – this individual ended up on the streets due to not being able to claim the tenancy that he and his long-term partner shared. I have known several other students and graduates in the homeless community – some of them on the streets and others as “hidden homeless”, sofa-surfing and crashing with friends whilst not having a home of their own. I had lived like this many times whilst at university and knew a large number of other students who did the same.

There are many people who fall into those demographics that don’t seem to fit with the stereotypes that surround homelessness. However, as important as it is to acknowledge that, it is equally important to address some of the more “typical” demographics in this regard. Out of the majority of homeless people I have known who suffered from addictions (most commonly to heroin but also to alcohol and crack cocaine), these people had been through very traumatic experiences. In many cases, these people had been through the care system and for those that were, a majority of them recall being abused. One friend in particular stands out in this regard to me, as he was sexually abused and raped for many years in a care home – this particular care home had been mentioned in some of the articles that went around in light of the establishment paedophile scandal during the Operation Fernbridge investigation (as well as other, similar investigations at that time).

Street culture is a subculture in itself, with its own hierarchies, cliques, territorial claims and disputes (begging “pitches”) and all kinds of scams. My favourite of the scams came back to me after remembering an article in The Guardian, in which the journalist spent some time with five homeless people on the streets (whether they actually lived on the streets or not was a different matter, as that question wasn’t asked). I read this article before I became homeless myself and the only adjective I can find to describe it on reflection is – lazy.

Street life during the day in Piccadilly Gardens.

Street subculture, begging and addiction

The street subculture is a complex one that is misunderstood and can’t be summarized by having a chat with a beggar, getting a story and then running with it as if it’s gospel – if anything, it is almost insulting and undermines the complexity of the subculture. One of the homeless folks in The Guardian story was an army veteran who had served in various conflicts. This may have been true, but since observing the street subculture I have noticed similar cardboard signs, complete with the officer’s number the conflicts he had served in and the general “ex-soldier, living on the streets, please give money for…” and, whilst I do personally know people that are ex-soldiers, I also know that these signs are passed around between people – the reason being, once enough money has been made for a “fix”, another person will take the pitch (begging spot) and also the sign. Whether to reveal this scam became an internal ethical battle for me – the street subculture is largely about survival. For whatever reason a person needs money, who are we to question their given reason? That particular scam could be seen as a white lie – it doesn’t harm anybody but merely dupes a few people.

If data exists on this matter, I would love to see it, but my guess is that the majority of begging is for some kind of addiction. There are exceptions but, from my experience, they are few and far between. You cannot go hungry in Manchester. In fact, you can eat very well from food provided by charitable organisations. People are begging because they are addicted to drugs or alcohol. In Manchester city centre, you will see a beggar every few yards – not all of them homeless, but most of them addicted to something, with spice being the new epidemic. If addicts aren’t begging, they will shoplift. Some may resort to violent crime in order to feed their habit. A criminal defence lawyer told me that the courts are overwhelmed with cases pertaining to petty crimes resulting from drug addiction, with spice being one of the biggest problems

Prison system feeding the spice epidemic

How much money does it cost to police this mess we see on the streets? How much does it cost for the state to pay for a court appointed brief to represent a drug addict that was stealing perfume to sell to punters in bars? This is an extra strain on the criminal justice system that is already being stripped down, just like every other public institution, thanks to this government’s interest in making profit for themselves and their friends?

I believe the squeezed funding and outsourcing of prison services has contributed heavily to the spice epidemic which, in turn, has helped contribute to the rising number of people on the street addicted to this harmful concoction of chemicals. Spice – synthetic cannabinoids – is easily smuggled into prisons. For prisoners who are bored to death, it is a time killer, which also occasionally cures their boredom permanently. Evidence suggests that these chemicals are physically and psychologically addictive. A person doing time and getting hooked on spice is going to come out of Strangeways and look for it – he will find it easily. By the nature of the drug and its extremely unpredictable effects, he will probably not engage with probation, seek housing or the like and will end up on the streets, begging in order to feed his habit.

Spice Diamond, one of the brands of spice popular before it was banned by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

The visibility of people affected by poverty and addiction on our streets is a problem for many. Manchester wishes to attract investors, because that is how our economy currently works – we want big tall buildings and lots of dynamic companies, multinationals, start-ups and all the rest of it. But a walk around Market Street, especially in the evening, is not a pretty sight. I am not interested in attracting investors into Manchester – I am interested in building homes, introducing tenants’ rights, rent controls, creating more jobs and opportunities for all, especially for young people. But, ironically, I see the visibility issue with the beggars in the same way as some of these investors would! The question is, what do we do? How do we make the streets look more attractive and feel safer? I have an idea – a controversial one, shared by many but one that I believe is rational: decriminalise drugs.

Drug decriminalisation

Check out Portugal: crime plummeted. Check out Norway: focussing on treatment rather than punishment. Check out what they’re doing in Switzerland, where drug deaths have been greatly reduced. One thing has to be understood: drugs are a public health issue; they are not a criminal issue. Drugs are just chemical compounds, and it is how we use them individually, socially, culturally and legally that define the outcomes of their usage. In themselves, drugs are benign. Every time we go for a pint or drink a glass of rose whilst watching a bit of Corrie, we are taking a drug. How many people end up in A&E on Friday night because they had one too many in Yates and got battered?

As for cannabis, well, I’m not going to pretend that its completely harmless because nothing is – moderation is key when it comes to anything. However, how many people end up in A&E every weekend after having a smoke? Arguing over whether there is more to the Cosmic Realm than popular science leads us to believe or whether the whole thing was created in seven days – including all of the drugs. I would bet the £20 note in my back pocket that it has never happened.

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There are instances of violence when it comes to cannabis and that is largely because of rival gangs selling it and stepping on each others toes. If we take away the criminal element, we can focus on harm reduction. Instead of looking at drugs as some kind of group of evil monsters that will do nothing but destroy people, we need to educate ourselves on them properly – and scientifically, such as in the way that Professor David Nutt did. Whether he got off his Nutt is irrelevant, but his research challenged so much of what we know about drugs and I would love to hear of his opinions on spice, given that it has become such a problem in this city and others across the UK.

I interviewed a police officer about drugs and was amazed when he talked about harm reduction before I did. It seems like society is on the cusp of change – many of us are becoming more educated and it seems to me that education and compassion go hand in hand. It is reactionaries, resistant to education that may bring fresh understanding, that want to lock everyone up for indulging in altering the way their minds work, while so many of them indulge in drugs and other forms of what they may call debauchery themselves.

Hypocrisy seems to be part of the parcel when it comes to the powers that be. However, we, as citizens and social beings, can educate ourselves and promote harm-reduction. Perhaps that way we can either put more money into housing, healthcare, education and all that good stuff. Or follow the “London model” and build sky-scrapers that amount to little more than phallic showing off: “look at our big city, with big shiny buildings, isn’t it great!”. Its time that we all get realistic about this and stop either ignoring the issue or criminalising it.


Oliver Martin

Oliver is currently living in supported accommodation in Manchester and waiting to receive the keys to his own secure tenancy. He is working full time at Street Support Network using his experience of life on the streets to help reduce rough sleeping and homelessness across Greater Manchester.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

Part of ‘The Meteor Explores: Homelessness in Manchester‘ series. The rest can be reached by clicking here

If you would like to find help for people who are homeless, and see what you can do to help, check out Street Support Network: www.streetsupport.net

Featured Image: The Meteor (Oliver Martin in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester)

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