Last week, a colleague relayed to me their experience of being wrongfully accused of fraud after an errant payment was mistakenly sent to their account under mysterious circumstances. The errant transaction, which led Police to assume their involvement with illegal activities, went quietly unnoticed as they’d been working a string of ad-hoc freelance roles and predictably unpredictable streams of income. After receiving the call, they were left with no choice but to hunt for a solicitor and oversee preparation for their questioning. Hearing the events recounted back, the entire process sounded disquietingly traumatic, not least because of its unexpectedness. The mere idea of being in that position myself gave me shivers, that creeping, walls-closing-in feeling of being inescapably cornered and riled by my marked lack of agency in this hypothetical situation. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, these cruel twists of fate are hardly as uncommon as we might assume.
It’s been said that we’re often no more than a few pay-days away from losing our housing security and becoming homeless. It might be a rogue redundancy that sets the ball rolling, or perhaps a botched payslip, fractured relationship or fickle landlord. Once it’s in motion, all semblances of order can come crashing down with alarming speed. In a recent report published by MHRC in January 2019, it was estimated that approximately 4,677 people were sleeping rough in the UK between October- December 2018; a figure which has increased a massive 165% since 2010. In 2018 alone, there’s been a 42% increase of rough sleepers in the West Midlands, compared to a 29% increase in the North East of England and a 19% increase in both Yorkshire and the Humber.
As chilling as these figures are, they only reinforce what we already know. Anyone who’s semi-regularly walked through Britain’s highstreets, overground trains and public parks will have noticed a marked increase in the number of people begging and sleeping rough in recent years. We know there’s a growing problem, but we’re too preoccupied with our personal complaints to acknowledge or assist those who are downtrodden. Whether it’s as menial as looking at, acknowledging and speaking to the homeless people who approach us, it’s important to fundamentally acknowledge their presence as well as supporting charities which support and lobby for homeless people’s rights. The US-based nonprofit Invisible People was founded in this spirit, interviewing homeless individuals and exploring their personal stories and backgrounds. As Invisible People write on their website, “There is a direct correlation between what the general public perceives about homelessness and how it affects policy change. Through storytelling, education, news, and activism, we are changing the narrative on homelessness.”
Whilst boosting awareness of homeless narratives paves the way for more empathetic attitudes to homelessness, we must be wary of who is telling the story, how it’s told and whether homeless subjects are represented with dignity, self-represented, or whether their experiences are simply aestheticised for art’s sake.
Bland reflections of hardships and the use of the ‘tramp’ stock character are outdated, offensive and dangerous. As artists, writers, creatives and cultural customers, we have a moral obligation to credit homeless individuals and their narratives with dignity and basic humanity. Flatly reducing homeless subjects to a cultural aesthetic is more than simply lazy, it’s un-human. To stoke change, a reciprocal relationship needs to be established through the involvement of homeless individuals in the art’s production, or at the very least, forged through meaningful conversations and interactions with the homeless community and some contribution towards homeless projects such as Crisis, Shelter, Centrepoint, Streets of London and St. Mungo’s.
One such mode of storytelling is the tradition of verbatim/documentary theatre, which presents the lived events and narratives of subjects using their transcribed monologues to build its narrative foundation. This approach was used by playwright Nadia Fall whose 2013 play Home was hosted at a temporary theatre venue within The National (‘The Shed’), spotlighting the stories of young homeless people living in London to a beatbox soundtrack. The play was widely praised, with resident Guardian theatre critic Michael Billinghurst giving the production four stars and remarking with surprise at the “fierce eloquence” of individual testimonies.
Whilst some might argue that the relaying of homeless narratives through the sanitised voices of learned actors is a product of the distinctly middle-class audience, this is perhaps one of the better methods of showcasing homeless narratives, shunning the classically melancholic sepia-tone representations of homelessness on the stage and privileging homeless voices, albeit, on paper. Better still, a project such as the performing arts charity Streetwise Opera host Opera productions and community workshops at five locations across the UK, working with a cast of performers who happen to have been previously homeless.
Six years after Home’s curtain call, The National’s onsite actions contradict its amicable, social-justice favouring facade. Luce, who uses they/them pronouns, is 22 and works in community arts. After recently exiting the Southwark theatre, Luce witnessed an aggressive exchange between The National Theatre’s security team and a nearby homeless man who approached them, asking for change. “Within seconds of this exchange, the security officer approached us and proceeded to not only be really hostile to this man, but stopped me from giving change, citing The National’s “no begging policy” before telling the man to “get a degree”.
They concede, “The theatre industry is painstakingly middle class. It puts profit before people and turns its back when it’s convenient to do so.” These aggressive tactics to deter homeless people begging, living or existing in the vicinity of the arts building demonstrates precisely why it’s not enough to stage palatable productions of second-hand narratives to sold-out middle-class audiences.
There’s no simple answer to the homelessness crisis our country is facing, nor is there one way of representing homeless narratives in arts and culture. But for those able to spare a few hours each week, working in community homeless projects is enormously rewarding. After relocating to Oxford, 23-year-old Beth found her new city to be “prosperous in both money and homelessness”. The PhD student was keen to involve herself with community-based voluntary work, and soon started volunteering with the city’s Gatehouse Project. The shelter hosts daily meetings where visitors can access two hours of warmth, friendly company and food; much of which is received from external donations. “Evenings are set aside in the week to give the guests a chance to paint, play and hear music, or to read a play as a group.” Beth explains that the organisation’s cultural facilities can offer a therapeutic haven from the troubles of displacement, “This community is dedicated to entertaining their guests and understanding their need for food for the soul as well as their stomachs, providing the respite that these guests inarguably deserve.”