Manchester, England – For the past two years Stephen has set up home on a bench in Manchester city centre, a few yards from a cash machine where he spends most of the day hoping for loose change from passers-by.
On the opposite side of the road is a Greggs bakery where staff provide him with cups of tea and warm food to keep him going.
The 41-year-old from the Greater Manchester town of Oldham describes the downward spiral he fell into after he was imprisoned for six weeks for not paying his TV license.
Already suffering from mental health issues and instability in his personal life, he emerged from the spell inside without a home to return to.
“When I came out I had nowhere to go and no money to live on so I became homeless,” he tells Al Jazeera.
For Stephen and others who are homeless like him, having no fixed address means they have no way of claiming welfare benefits from the state.
To get housing, he has to apply to the local council, but demand for social housing far outstrips the number of properties available.
There's no one out there to help us really. I just want my basic benefits back and I could sort myself out and get myself back into work
According to a report by the Manchester Evening News (MEN) last November, 5,000 people need social housing in the Manchester area and another 10,000 in nearby Salford.
Councils have points based systems in place to prioritise those most in need, with families, victims of domestic abuse, and people suffering from illness taking precedence.
Priority is also given to those who can prove local ties to the area, such as familial relations or being in a relationship with a local resident, neither of which apply to Stephen.
As a single male with a criminal conviction and no local connection, he says he is at the back of the queue, and as a result has no choice but to live on whatever support the public can provide.
“There’s no one out there to help us really. I just want my basic benefits back and I could sort myself out and get myself back into work,” Stephen says.
“At the moment, I just sit here, hoping people give me some money, buy me some food or some drinks.”
Stephen is overheard by his friend Neil, who sleeps nearby and also became homeless two years ago, in his case after a divorce.
“If you’re not from the local area you can basically f*** off,” Neil says.
“I’m not from Manchester, but why shouldn’t I live in Manchester?
“We’re here right now; it doesn’t really matter where we lived before, they should be able to help us.”
The pair is part of a growing population of rough sleepers in the city, which has grown to at least 78 in the city proper, according to a report by MEN in January.
That number is 11 times what it was in 2010 when the Conservative government first took power.
The same report put the number of rough sleepers in the Greater Manchester area at 139. Nationally, around 4,000 people are believed to have slept rough in 2016.
The extent to which the homeless have become an intrinsic part of Manchester’s cityscape was displayed in the aftermath of last week’s bomb attack on an Ariana Grande concert, which left 22 people dead.
One story that emerged was of a homeless man, Chris Parker, who was near the site of the explosion and rushed to treat the injured, pulling nails from wounds.
Parker’s actions were hailed as heroic and with the praise came offers of free rent and financial help to get him off the streets.
The response to the attack placed renewed focus on the city’s homeless, but Stephen and Neil have little hope it will translate into positive long-term change.
With the general election fast approaching, both men have registered to vote in a local library, but see little hope of change in any party.
“Once they’re elected all the stuff they said they’re going to do they turn their backs on,” Stephen says.
Nevertheless, he reserves stronger condemnation for the Conservatives.
“I want the Tories [Conservatives] out more than anything.”
As part of its welfare reforms, the government has cut housing benefit payments to people under the age of 21, and an insufficient number of homes built under its rule has sent rents soaring, helping leave more than 43,000 families homeless since 2012.
The opposition Labour Party, which almost completely dominates Manchester City Council with 94 of the 96 councillors, has also faced criticism for not doing enough to help rough sleepers and the homeless.
In 2015, the council was involved in a ‘cat and mouse’ episode with homeless protesters who set up camp at one spot in the city centre, only to move to another when evicted.
The protesters, who accused the local authority of not helping them find suitable shelter, were eventually threatened with fines of up to 1,000GBP ($1,285) each if they continued to set up camp in the area.
That move led to widespread condemnation of the council, with more that 70,000 people signing a petition against its actions.
However, Manchester’s new mayor, Labour’s Andy Burnham has pledged to turn over a new leaf, even promising to donate part of his salary to help the homeless.
We are dealing with increasing numbers of people who need support and decreasing resources to enable us to do so as a city region
Burnham appointed a task force to tackle the issue of rough sleeping and homelessness across the city.
Beth Knowles, one of Burnham’s leads on homelessness and rough sleeping in the Greatern Manchester region, told Al Jazeera that the local authority is addressing the problem and will not shy away from the challenges it’s facing.
“We are dealing with increasing numbers of people who need support and decreasing resources to enable us to do so as a city region,” she says.
“The primary reason for people becoming homeless in Greater Manchester is the ending of a private rental tenancy. This has spiked in recent years due to rental prices rising and a lack of secure tenancies for people in insecure or unstable situations,” she adds.
Knowles further blamed government cuts to mental health budgets, housing benefits and local councils for leaving “large gaps” in the social safety net, through which “more and more people are slipping”.
‘Bursting at the seams’
Increasingly, ordinary people are working to fill those large gaps and are stepping in where government falls short.
Not far from Stephen’s bench, on Portland Street, Doug Stevenson and his team of volunteers at Feed Manchester provide warm meals to those living on the streets.
“We hand out clothing, toiletries, more importantly, we’ve got an ear for them and we give them advice,” he says describing the deteriorating situation in Manchester as state funds to tackle the issue dry up.
“[The homeless] are on these streets for different reasons, mainly mental health, which itself leads on to drug issues but the problems have just got worse and worse over the past five years.
“Everywhere is bursting at the seams, whether it’s the council, whether it’s the probation officers, social care, they can’t cope. They absolutely cannot cope.”
His volunteer group is one of many initiatives doing as much as they can to get people off the streets, but Stevenson says their efforts fall short of the policy changes needed to help those without a home effectively.
“Our work is just putting plasters on the wound basically, a lot of the services are having to put plasters on because they haven’t got the resources, there isn’t the money.”