Despite Brexit, we managed to get Parliament talking about a very different crisis

By Jennifer Williams, social affairs editor, Manchester Evening News

It is arguably the bitterest irony of government’s endless Brexit battle to make Britain great again.

Jennifer Williams speaking at the Behind Local News conference in the summer

While ministers — and large sections of the national media — have been consumed by taking back control, be it from Brussels or from each other, the fabric of the country they claim to be fighting for is fraying.

This year the Manchester Evening News has run three in-depth investigations into the human collateral damage.

First we looked at the men living for years on end in hidden Victorian slums, uncounted in statistics, ignored by local authorities.

Then, faced with a series of unnamed street deaths this summer, we attempted to uncover the numbers — and names — of those who are losing their lives in our rough sleeping epidemic, the tragedies written out of history.

Finally, on the eve of the Brexit vote that never happened, we turned our attention to the next generation.

On Sunday the third part of the series, ‘No Place for a Child’, revealed the appalling conditions homeless children are forced to grow up in in 2018: from some of the sordid guest houses used by the council, to the rat-infested temporary housing it moves many into afterwards, to the pound bakeries and food banks on which they’re forced to rely.

In many ways, this latest investigation started out as a hunch.

I could see the soaring numbers of homeless families recorded in council paperwork, the ballooning sums it was spending on bed & breakfasts, many of them — just from a quick Google — questionable.

I had read Shelter’s national reports: families squeezing into one room, nowhere to cook, unsafe.

An early off-the-record check with one small charity told me this suspicion was correct. While some areas were better than others at housing homeless families, they said, in Manchester children were landing in guest houses that ‘you wouldn’t stay in as a pissed student’.

Simply suspecting the story was out there did not make it any easier to dig up.

The thing you don’t get told about investigative journalism is how endlessly tedious it often is to actually get the story over the line. An endless battle to climb over obstacle after obstacle, or go round them instead, burn them down.

For the next five months or so I tried everything I could think of to build up a picture of conditions and — crucially, because this is what makes the impact — get pictures.

I spoke to councillors, cajoled them to cajole their homeless constituents to speak to me. I found bad reviews online of one accommodation provider, looked through them for unusual names and searched for them online, a tactic that worked twice, to my slight amazement.

I asked every single person I knew in housing about the situation, repeatedly, endlessly, until they must have been sick of me asking about it.

I FOI-ed the council, to varying degrees of success, about the scale of the crisis.

Trip Advisor reviews of the hotels were trawled through, direct messages sent to the people who had posted them.

At one stage I checked into one hotel with a colleague, just to be completely sure that I had gone down every avenue, ticked every box.

Yet there was still something missing. As October rolled into November and Christmas neared, I still didn’t feel as though there were quite enough humans in the story.

So — in absence of any major charities focusing on this issue, apart from Shelter, who were unfortunately unable to supply case studies — I thought laterally.

Which charities see these families?

Food banks.

When the Trussell Trust put me in touch with Colin, the manager of their Fallowfield and Withington branch, everything fell into place. When I heard his stories of destitution, desperation, of apparent institutional indifference, that was when I knew for absolute sure that I was on the right lines.

Not only was he able to find people who could speak to me, but he had pictures, documentary evidence, first-hand anecdotes.

He was angry. And I was angry, too.

We should all be angry about this.

Yesterday the Prime Minister told MPs of the Brexit vote, as she argued for her doomed deal: “Places that didn’t get a lot of attention at elections, and which did not get much coverage on the news, were making their voices heard and saying that they wanted things to change.”

True. But here’s some coverage about what has happened since then, as ministers sleep at the Brexit bus wheel.

Here are some voices.

Here’s what we want to change.

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