Former Manchester United and Scotland midfielder Lou Macari has been using his position to make life better for people experiencing homelessness.
Photo by Jon Super/Shutterstock
Every year The Big Issue Changemakers series highlights the great and good, the innovators and agitators, the individuals and organisations who look out for the less fortunate, not through any desire for praise but because they recognise an essential need.
The crisis of homelessness and housing in the UK is a challenge that won’t go away. But there are people out there fighting to make a difference where official policy fails.
These are the Changemakers making a difference to one of the most basic human rights: having a roof overhead to call home.
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Have you heard about the Manchester United footballer who dedicates his life to helping people in poverty? You know him – he’s famed for wearing a No 10 shirt, being a full international and having a heart the size of Old Trafford.
No, not Marcus Rashford. We’re talking about Lou Macari, the midfield dynamo who made more than 300 appearances for United from 1973-84, as well as representing Scotland. After years in management and punditry, he read a debate about homelessness between two local councillors in his local paper. It changed his life. Macari (below left) went out into Stoke-on-Trent, met people sleeping rough and created somewhere safe for them.
“The reason I got involved was thinking, well, I’ve had a good life, I’ve been lucky, I played for Manchester United, Celtic, the biggest clubs in the country, and I went to a World Cup,” he told The Big Issue. “And this is a change I can make. I knew, with the help of a lot of people, I would be able to help. And I knew I could get help for homeless people because of my position as an ex-footballer.
“I had read a disagreement about homelessness in Stoke by two councillors. So I went out to find out for myself and realised it was a massive problem. I met six people sleeping rough and asked if I found somewhere for them to stay, would they use it? They said yes. Our first night, we had six people, the next night eight; soon we had 30. We fed them, we clothed them and put a roof over their head.
“We got a new centre in 2020. It’s the size of a football pitch and they stay in little pods [above] we got made. It’s a big job, it comes at you from all angles, every day and every night. Five years on, I know a lot more about homelessness. It’s scary. But as soon as we have them under our roof that fear is gone. No one can walk in and threaten them. For many of the people here, having shelter and safety and food is a massive win.”
For 18 months, Kwajo Tweneboa asked Clarion, one of the biggest housing associations in the country, to fix his flat.
The home he shared with his two sisters in Eastfields Estate in South London had no ceiling in the main room, mouldy walls and was infested with vermin and asbestos.
When his pleas went ignored, he took to social media to shame Clarion into action – and unwittingly found his calling.
Now Tweneboa (above) is Britain’s brightest social housing champion. With the housing crisis showing no sign of stopping and thousands of people paying over the odds for death-trap homes, Tweneboa is giving people a voice, sharing horror stories on social media and calling out Britain’s biggest housing bosses.
“We can’t let people live in squalor,” Tweneboa told The Big Issue. Few are doing more to ensure that everyone has a decent, safe place to live.
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One of the few undoubted success stories of the Covid-19 response has been the speed of the vaccination rollout– but it also left people behind.
People experiencing homelessness, despite their general health vulnerabilities, were not included in many of the at-risk groups when the vaccine rollout began at the end o 2020.
Dr Zahid Chauhan did not stand for it. The doctor and councillor mobilised health workers in Oldham over the new year, and on January 13 Lee Ullha and Kelly Heney became what is thought to be the first people in the world without a stable home to receive the life-saving jab.
Dr Chauhan’s actions came two months ahead of governmental advice from Westminster as well as in Scotland and Wales to prioritise people experiencing homelessness for jabs. He also wrote to then-health secretary Matt Hancock several times to provoke government action on the issue.
His championing of the cause has continued throughout the pandemic and now, with the Omicron variant the latest concern, he is also leading calls for homeless people to be near the front of the queue to receive booster jabs this winter.
In 2022 it will be five years since the Grenfell Tower fire put the spotlight on social housing and building safety. But the litany of fire defects and the mess of trying to fix them is no closer to being solved.
Steve Day is leading the charge to fix the problem with the Polluter Pays Bill – a resident-driven approach. The idea would enable the government to pursue remediation and interim fire safety costs from developers and other responsible parties without time limitation.
Like thousands of others across the country, Day is facing eye-watering bills of more than £30,000 to fix fire defects at his property, located at Royal Artillery Quays in Woolwich, south-east London.
The government has put up a £5.1 billion fund to remove dangerous cladding for buildings over 18 metres in height, but the scale of the issue and the other fire defects means the final bill is likely to be much, much higher.
Day believes leaseholders shouldn’t have to pay to fix their homes – a view shared by Housing Secretary Michael Gove – and in 2022 he could be the one to solve the issue and force the property developers responsible to finally pay up for their failures.
It’s going to take some creative thinking to combat the housing crisis, the homelessness crisis and climate crisis. The architects at ZED Pods are bringing innovative thinking to tackle all three.
Their pioneering net-zero carbon homes designed for people experiencing homelessness have made such an impact in Bristol that they were exhibited at COP26 in November.
Known as Hope Rise, the 11 homes sit on stilts above a functioning car park and are packed with plenty of innovations to drive down the carbon emissions, including low-energy heating systems, rooftop solar panels and other green tech.
Developed in conjunction with Bristol City Council, Bristol Housing Festival and the local arm of the YMCA, the modular homes are also close to public amenities to reduce the need for the reliance on carbon-emitting cars.
They also house ‘community builders’ to help the youngsters who have experienced homelessness to adapt to living independently.
Plans are under way to bring the homes to other parts of the UK, including the London borough of Bromley. More innovative projects like this will be needed to tackle all three crises.
Kindness Homeless Street Team
Perhaps no image summed up the rising levels of poverty during the pandemic quite like this photo from Glasgow’s George Square. The snap captured a queue that saw more than 200 people visit Kindness Homeless Street Team’s soup kitchen on one night in February 2021, despite blizzards and sub-zero conditions.
The situation was widely condemned and has resurfaced on social media throughout the pandemic in debates on food poverty and Covid’s cruel impact on the poorest. Kindness Homeless Street Team has been there throughout the pandemic too, offering everything from food to clothing to haircuts come rain or shine.
And it’s not just support offered on the street – the grassroots group also helps people furnish their properties and provide a wide range of services.
Covid-19’s impact on the economy continues to leave people on the brink, and the Kindness Homeless Street Team continues to draw attention to it.
The high street and the world of work have changed dramatically in the last couple of years. Working from home has become commonplace and buildings have been left vacant as Covid has moved life away from towns and city centres. East Sussex-based White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures Ltd is carving out buildings fit for the future from premises left to rot in the past.
The social enterprise developer transforms derelict buildings into capped-rent homes and workspaces and creates affordable spaces for living, working, learning, leisure and community action. With the help of Big Issue Invest, White Rock regenerated Rock House in Hastings to generate jobs and is working on renovating the town’s Observer Building, which has been empty for 35 years.
Covid has the potential to rip the heart out of communities and towns, but efforts like White Rock’s can build foundations for them to prosper in 2022 and beyond.
Amy Varle was living in a homeless hostel 20 years ago, and has devoted her adult life travelling across the UK and the US to come up with a solution for the issue.
That solution has been dubbed the ‘Uber for homelessness’ owing to its reliance on tech. Varle’s Socially Homes project is aiming to launch a social networking site that connects people without a home with the people who can find them a permanent one.
The 36-year-old (below) told The Big Issue that she recognised many of the solutions to getting people off the street are already in place, but people struggle to find them or they are not joined up and thus many slip through the cracks. Socially Homes is currently building up an online community from the charity sector and investment sector as well as service providers to share best practice and resources on how to reduce homelessness.
In 2022, Varle will take the model to the US and hold a ‘Global Gathering’ conference in California, as well as continuing the rollout in the UK as she explores how tech-for-good can make a difference.
On the football pitch, Andy Robertson captains Scotland and has won the Champions League with Liverpool. Off it, he runs a charity improving the lives of young people in Scotland.
Taking his legendary stamina and applying it elsewhere, Glasgow-born Robertson launched the AR26 charity last year. It offers “life-changing experiences” to children facing difficult circumstances, such as hardship or severe health issues. These include meet and greets, trips to Lapland and staycations. Robertson’s charity also offers mentoring for young people and aims to offer free football coaching across Scotland.
Among those helped are three-year-old Zac Gunn, who is fighting pulmonary hypertension and needs new lungs. Zac is among those who will benefit from one of AR26’s life-changing experiences.
Zac’s mum Ashley said: “As a family we are huge Andy Robertson fans and to have built a special friendship with his charity and witness the amazing work they do is really special to us.”
University of Chichester
For people experiencing homelessness, entering education to lift themselves out of poverty can be a daunting and often unreachable prospect.
The University of Chichester is aiming to bridge the gap with their Adversity to University course. The 12-week course, which has been running for a couple of years, aims to empower homeless people with the skills and confidence needed to start a degree.
The project has proved successful so far, encouraging five students to take on degrees in subjects such as sociology and fine arts at university, while others have taken maths and English qualifications in a bid to return to employment.
The university is not only creating a pathway for people experiencing homelessness to enter higher education in the local area, it is helping to make the change nationwide. Course leaders have created a toolkit for other universities to get on board in 2022 and beyond.
One of the great hidden tragedies of Britain’s austerity era is the decimation of libraries and the free access to knowledge, culture and technology that has been eroded from the communities who need it most. Libraries are valuable to those who are unfortunate enough to be unable to afford books or access the internet on their own. They also offer a vital place of acceptance, as well as shelter for people without a home.
Streetreads Library opened its doors in Edinburgh in August catering solely to people experiencing homelessness. The library is the culmination of five years of work for Streetreads, now a part of Streetwork at homelessness charity Simon Community Scotland. The group has been taking donated books out to individual rough sleepers, soup kitchens, night shelters and refuges since 2016. But now they are able to offer a safe, warm space alongside the books for the people who need it in the Scottish capital.
Documentary maker and care leaver Becky Southworth makes films shining a light on the parts of society people don’t often see – or look at.
Her BBC One documentary Can Sex Offenders Change? explored her own experience. Becky’s father was imprisoned for 10 years for sexually assaulting children, including her.
In 2017 her documentary Kicked Out looked at the relationship between being in care and going on to homelessness and troubled lives.
And this year, she released a BBC Three documentary, Tagged, about some of the 7,000 women ordered to wear a tag each year. It highlighted the spectrum of life under these restrictions, from the challenge of shaving your legs to the struggle of staying out of trouble.
Her documentaries give a platform to issues and stories that might otherwise be ignored, forcing viewers to face up to the lives of others.
Addiction Clinical Care Suite
When you don’t have a permanent address, access to medical care is just another barrier on the journey to stability and security. But last summer, the first detox unit for homeless people opened in London.
Located at St Thomas’ Hospital in Central London, the Addiction Clinical Care Suite helps people who sleep rough to safely withdraw from alcohol and drugs. It was created by Public Health England, using money from the government.
Beyond the initial detox, the suite also provides ongoing care and hopes to offer a route off the streets for good. Offering psychological support, as well as advice on healthy eating and vaccinations, those working at the centre hope to change the lives of those they work with.