The winter of 1990-91 was very severe and, with an estimated 150 people sleeping rough in Manchester, volunteers from Lifeshare responded and opened two night shelters at the Methodist Central Hall and the Church of the Ascension in Hulme. Again, very quickly it became obvious that this also wasn’t what people wanted or needed. They were glad to have the opportunity to come off the streets but people wanted their own homes and support to address their problems, rather than a mattress on a church floor.
By 1994 people were telling us that they wanted much more than soup runs. They wanted to take more control over their lives. We took a group of people to London to visit the Big Issue, which had just started, and came back and wrote a Manchester supplement and the Big Issue in the North was born. People were requesting a place where they could get support during the day and more activities to get involved with. Lifeshare wrote to the City Council and to the Church of England to request some land to put a portacabin on. The Council never replied but Ken Riley, the Dean of Manchester Cathedral offered their brass rubbing room. Within 6 months an application was made to English Heritage to put a new door into the Cathedral from Victoria Street, a grant was obtained from the Booth Charities (set up by Humphrey Booth in the 17th century to help poor people of Salford), giving the Booth Centre its name, and the room was converted to include an office, toilet and tea bar, and the Centre opened with a co-ordinator and 6 volunteers on 1st May 1995.
The official opening of the Centre dedicated it to the memory of Mick Leddy and Peter Ryan who had lived on the streets for many years and had died prematurely. The vision was that everyone should have the opportunity to have their own home and good quality of life. The Centre was based on several key principles; firstly, that everyone should have access to good quality advice, so that they can make decisions and take control of their lives, secondly that the Centre should be shaped and delivered with people who use the service and thirdly that everyone needs a purpose in life and that people who are homeless should have the opportunity to take part in activities that are creative, fun and interesting. So, our strapline in 1995 was “drop-in for advice, activities and support”, our logo was a person parachuting and we offered sandwiches and an advice service each morning and ran drama, singing, creative writing, art and circus skills sessions each afternoon. Billy Kennedy, who lived at Mary and Joseph House, arrived the day before we opened and told us he would sweep the floor. He was the first of hundreds of people who came to the Booth Centre for support and ended up helping to run the Centre.
In 1997 the Booth Centre’s registration with the Charity Commission was approved and it became an independent charity with a board of trustees, chaired by Philip Knowles and including the Dean of the Cathedral. It was also the year the Centre employed its second worker and developed more activities including regular outdoor pursuit residentials, giving people the opportunity to try new things outside the city. Later this developed into conservation work, an allotment project and a gardening social enterprise which we ran for a few years before it was taken over by our trainees as an independent concern.
The Centre teamed up with Business in the Community to start a job club and over the last 25 years helped hundreds of people who were or had been homeless get into work. This included employing people at the Centre who were homeless and enabling them to secure and maintain a home through the confidence and skills they gained by working at the Centre.
In 1994 with the expansion of the European Union we began to see people who had come to the UK to get work but who, for various reasons, had become homeless and destitute. We set up a reconnection service to help those who wanted to return home and a support service to help others to get into work and secure accommodation. This was the start of our EU Homeless Prevention Service, which over the last 15 years has ensured that Manchester doesn’t have the problems of cities like London where over 40% of people on the streets are European Nationals (Manchester it is less than 2%). Our EU Homeless Prevention Partnership won a Spirit of Manchester Award in 2021.
Over the last 26 years, the Booth Centre’s arts programme has opened up new interests and experiences to more than a thousand people. It has enabled people at the Centre to, amongst many other things, perform at the Royal Exchange Theatre, The Bridgewater Hall, and The Royal Opera House in London and to stage exhibitions at the Whitworth Art Gallery and the People’s History Museum. We have also taken people to Brazil and Lithuania to exhibit their work and make international links. We have worked with fantastic partners in the arts sector including The Edge Theatre, Streetwise Opera and arthur + martha and have won a number of arts awards. It is one of the many things that makes the Booth Centre a very special and creative place.
The pioneering work of the Centre and the dedication of volunteers, most of whom have experienced homelessness, was recognised in 2015 when we won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and in 2018 when we won the Homeless Link National Excellence award for Co-production.
In 2020 as COVID-19 was emerging we met with people at the Centre to redesign our service to ensure that we could stay open throughout the pandemic and that people were able to get off the streets and look after their mental health by having access to a range of activities which helped them to stay safe and accommodated. We also achieved our aim of delivering Emergency Accommodation Standards in Manchester, through our work with the City Council and all our other partners, which ensures people no longer have to stay in night shelters but have single room accommodation with support.
We have not yet eradicated rough sleeping but the services that exist in 2021 are significantly better than they were in 1991. The launch of the Manchester Homeless Partnership in 2017, which the Booth Centre played a leading role in, has brought together the voluntary and statutory services with the faith-based sector, businesses and people who are homeless to ensure that we have a joined-up approach to ending homelessness in Manchester.
People know that the Booth Centre never gives up on anyone and won’t give up on them - quite uniquely people aren’t barred from the Centre but we work with people to ensure that they can attend safely.
Fundamentally the Booth Centre is a family and is described by most people who visit as a safe place where they feel welcomed and where they matter as an individual. This is shown very strongly each year when we hold a memorial service and come together as a community to remember friends from the Centre who have passed away. It’s a Booth Centre family event, people write and perform songs and poetry and we ensure that people who have attended the Centre are important and won’t be forgotten.
Tomorrow, I’ll be leaving the Booth Centre and a new CEO will be recruited to help guide the Booth Centre on the next stage of its journey. I do not doubt that it will continue to develop new and innovative ways to try and achieve its mission of ensuring that everyone has a secure home and a good quality of life. I’m sure that the new CEO will find it a life-changing experience, just as I and most of the people who visit, volunteer or work at the Centre have done.
Thank you to everyone who has been a part of the Centre over the last quarter-century - you’ve helped to create a very unique and special place.