Plans are under way to build the UK’s largest village for rough sleepers in one of Manchester’s most desirable neighbourhoods. Embassy Village will provide homes for 40 men in purpose-built pods underneath 10 railway arches in the Castlefield district, where one-bedroom flats regularly sell for £250,000.
Sandwiched between the River Irwell and the Bridgewater canal, the land has been given for free on a 125-year lease by Peel Group, the developers behind MediaCity and the Manchester Ship Canal.
The village is the brainchild of Sid Williams, founder of a Christian charity called Embassy. A skinny-jeaned, perma-cheerful enthusiast, he ran a homeless shelter on Mumford & Sons’ old tour bus until Covid got in the way.
James Whittaker, Peel’s executive director of development, calls him Jesus, “because you can’t help but feel the genuine good he’s doing. He’s probably the kindest, most genuine man I’ve ever met.”
Computer-generated images of the pods that will provide homes for 40 men. Photograph: PR
Though he would blush at the blasphemous comparison, 36-year-old Williams has a remarkable knack for getting rich people to dig into their pockets in his mission to house the homeless and destitute in Manchester.
An estate agent would describe Embassy Village as “waterside living in a city centre location”. Showing the Guardian around the site last month, Williams admitted it currently looks more like “an apocalyptic wasteland”, with water dripping from two viaducts carrying noisy trams and trains and some rough sleepers having already set up mattresses among the detritus of illegal raves.
Planning permission was granted this summer, with 61% of local people in favour of the project. Now Williams is on a mission to raise £3m to build the village, offering local corporates a chance to sponsor one or more homes.
Computer-generated simulations of the project show alfresco dining, festoon lighting and imaginary residents tending to communal gardens – exactly the sort of aspirational images sold to wealthy young professionals moving into the skyscrapers popping up across Manchester. But while they may pay £800 a month for a one-bed studio, Embassy’s residents are likely to pay no more than the local housing allowance – currently £302 a month for a room in a shared house or £552 for a one-bed flat.
Embassy is not providing “forever” homes. Residents can stay for a maximum of two years. The idea is to “give every resident a live trial run at managing a home, cooking, cleaning and paying rent in a sympathetic and supported environment”, said Williams.
The site of Embassy Village (right) lies on derelict land beneath 10 railway arches which lie adjacent to the Mancunian Way and Bridgewater Canal, opposite modern canalside apartments. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian
Running the Embassy bus led Williams to conclude that shelters are not really the answer to solving rough sleeping. If people are to get off the streets, they need stable tenancies and wrap-around support. They also need jobs, which is why Embassy partners with 18 local businesses who agree to give interviews and hopefully employment to its tenants.
To qualify for residency in Embassy Village, residents must be men with no alcohol or drug addictions. (Embassy will soon open a separate, more low-key project for homeless women fleeing domestic violence.) As well as paying rent, they must commit to six hours a week of training in shopping, cooking and budgeting. “I wanted to get away from the shelter model where you sort of accidentally become a parent, going, ‘Oh, I’ll do the shopping. And I’ll do the cleaning. And I’ll do the cooking,’” said Williams.
The preconception that most homeless people are addicts is not true, said Williams: “Sixty per cent of our chaps are homeless because of relationship breakdowns.”
During the pandemic, Embassy rented properties to move men from the tour bus into homes, including one who had spent seven years in shelters waiting for a council house. With about 13,000 households on the waiting list in Manchester, he never got to the top as a “single bloke with no criminal record, no addictions and no real mental health struggles”, said Williams.
CGI of the planned development. Photograph: PR
Potential residents will be referred by Manchester city council or local homeless charities and then interviewed by Embassy. “The interview is really to ascertain whether you’re serious about change,” said Williams. “Believe it or not, about half the people we interview say, ‘I don’t want a job, I don’t ever want to work, I want to live in a council flat. That’s my ambition.’ And we go, ‘That’s great. But we are not that thing.’”
Smaller homeless villages have been built in recent years in Bristol and Edinburgh, and the Hope Gardens development in Ealing, west London, has 60 apartments in containers used as emergency accommodation in 20ft containers for the newly homeless.
What makes Embassy different is the ambition to build a community. Central to this is a village hall, complete with counselling room, laundry and communal computers, plus a training kitchen to help residents learn to cook, said Williams: “That way we can be a community, we watch England lose at the football, we can celebrate people’s birthdays, and Christmas dinner – all that good stuff.”