Monday, 27 April 2015

The unspoken

The Homeless Library is the first ever attempt to write a history of homelessness in Britain. It includes not only individual testimonies, but also poetry and art, giving it a shape like no other.

Phil writes:

Our workshops are usually bustling events, with a fair smatter of laughter. But there are often many strands of experience woven into a day and this one had some darker threads which I'd like to take note of. Today was also a day of sad, unspoken conversations.

Detail of handmade book for 'The Homeless Library' April 2015

We'd had the idea of enquiring about people's health. There's very little information about the health of homeless people and we wanted to ask service users in The Wellspring how they were feeling this morning. A sort of weather check, that might lead to some insights about people's good or bad health. I went on a journey of the room, simply asking, "How're you doing today?"

At a homeless drop-in, people are very often navigating stormy weather in their lives. Asking such a direct question might be considered naive. But sometimes it's our duty to be naive, to ask the uncomfortable, to be the stupid one in the room. Provided no one gets hurt.

Out of my question flowed conversations which shook me a little, because they had a terrible sadness at the middle of them. The first man I talked with was sitting hunched over a brew and he glanced at me warily when I sat down. He was feeling down, and as we chatted, his head sunk a little. A bright, well-read man with a sharp edge to his gaze. We've talked several times, but he couldn't summon words today, he was blurring. "I've too much on my mind. This - " (he gestured to my notes) " - it seems abstract from where I am now, irrelevant. I can't put my mind to things..."

We talked a little more. I hated leaving him lost in grim mist. Lois and I generally try to end our encounters in a positive way, but this was not going to stop at a good point and eventually I bid my farewell, said I hoped he'd feel better. The words were like ashes in my mouth. As I went, looked up from his drink of tea and his face was greyed out, a numb blankness. He said absolutely nothing.

The next person I checked in with was also having a difficult day. "I'm feeling a bit down, but it'll pass once I get out in the sun. I've got to get myself to the park. See some green." As he talked, he twitched. His arms and flapped about in a vague way, like a damaged creature. His eyes were appealing to me, pupils wide. He was fighting to get to the other side of the sad sea, but it kept pulling him back. We wrote a piece together. He's been funny and articulate when we talked before, this time he was drowning in front of me and I couldn't drag him out. Behind his story there are hints of abuse and damage, that lead all the way back to childhood. How can this be spoken, given a shape, passed on for understanding?

As we drove away from the session, Lois talked about an interview she'd done today with a person who'd experienced sexual abuse. The words are on paper, but how do you ever say the emotion that comes with them. How can you write the tears that flowed all through that interview? How can this be said, truly?

How are you doing today?

The Homeless Library is a project devised by arthur+martha to document the heritage of homelessness using interviews, artworks, poetry. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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