The Homeless Library is a project devised by arthur+martha to document the heritage of homelessness using interviews, artworks, poetry. An exhibition of handmade books from the Library is open to the public at The Southbank, London until 18 September - the following interview is illustrated with photos taken at the exhibition. A free ebook The Homeless Library can be downloaded here.
The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
|Christian, by Christian, Jimi and others, book detail. The Homeless Library exhibition, Poetry Library, The Southbank, London until 18 September|
I arrive here at 8am and already there are a few people waiting outside, some faces you know some new. We start bang on 8am, because there can be so much chaos that our structure is tight to make people feel safe again, they like it. Team meeting at 8am, get the diary out and go through activities, issues from the day before and timetable.
Then volunteers start arriving like worker bees. The symbol of Manchester, the hard-working worker bee. We are blessed with our volunteers, someone is always willing to do something for you here. If I try to carry a table by myself I'll turn around and there will be three people wanting to help me.
Other things are going on too. The kitchen is being set up for breakfast. One minute to 9, people outside are saying "Is it ready, is it ready?" then at 9 o'clock they fly in through the door. Volunteers working like mad on the food so that it'll be ready in time.
The garden opens at 8:30 people can wait there and have a brew. Then the volunteer briefing starts at 8:45. I will let the volunteers know what's going on that day.
Breakfast is from 9am to 10am. I count heads, this morning from 9 to 10 there were 65 through the door to have breakfast or get advice. Staff get allocated to different parts of the building, you need eyes in the back of your head here. Lots of people are on the legal highs at the moment and legal highs are dangerous. As people come through the door, they arrange to get advice on benefits, housing, returns to various places in Europe, support and advice on trafficking or abuse.
The Dean's Watch, book detail. The Homeless Library exhibition, Poetry Library, The Southbank, London until 18 September
We say to the volunteers you've got to say hello to everyone, spot the people who look like rabbits in headlights, the ones who look terrified because they've never done this before and find out what they need. It might look like we are just serving breakfast but there's a lot more going on and it has to be natural, genuine, or people sense it isn't. We invite people to join in get involved with the social interaction, the activities. Then you get the old fight or fall out or drug situation which can be quite exhausting - and upsetting to other people in the centre, which isn't what we want.
|Group poem handwritten onto recipe cards|
By 10am breakfast is done and we start mobilising people. We try to provide a range of activities. The art sessions start dead on 10am. Then there's singing, employment skills, basketball, ukelele-playing, all sorts of stuff, depending on the day. If you don't want to do any of that that is fine, but go to a different centre if you just want to chill out. It's a cliche but true: give a man a fish he will eat for a day, teach him to fish and he'll eat for life. Give people only food and it won't address the bigger issues the have to face. I don't want to say to someone who is on the streets and is in shock, traumatised, "Do you fancy singing a nice little a song now?" But I might ask when the person and moment is right.
At 11 we have a tea break and then if people have engaged they'll stay for a second half. We do an award scheme. If you attend an activity five times you get an award and £10. But more than that we talk about the activity, what people have got from it and what it tells them about their own potential. If it can help deal with wider issues. Has it improved health? What would they want to do next, can they find a course? There should always be a goal, it should be challenging but manageable.
We recently put on a play which involved people learning lines and songs. Two of the people involved were going through deeply difficult things, recently been made homeless. And yet they turned up and they performed because it was important to them.
By 12 various things might have happened. People might have had some issues but they might also have produced some amazing work. The sessions are a way you hope to chat to people, if you're doodling with people you can also talk easily. We need more staff to spend quality time with people, they notice if you don't have the time to chat. But then you need, as a worker, to use your energy wisely. I've only worked here eight months and it's like 16, I don't mean that negatively, just in terms of the intensity.
We have council services here too, the idea is that services are unified. We are a good contrast to them we can be creative and non-linear. But the council needs to take responsibility for all of our citizens, the homeless problem should not just be shifted sideways. We should not be a substitute for government agencies. Duty of care for all needs to be statutory.
12 is lunch, which is available for people doing the activities, it's a treat. Lunch is good Valentino is a trained chef and food is important. We don't want to serve tuna bake every day. Some people here have small appetite so the food must be as nutritious as possible, rather than bulk. We put a menu up and the people sitting, they're served. It feels nice. We sit down with people and all have lunch together, we don't have a staff canteen. Then there's a volunteer meeting at approximately 12.30. That is very important find out what kind of morning volunteers have had, they can talk about issues, talk about how sessions could involve. We can also explain how difficult situations are dealt with, we don't want them taking problems home and dwelling on them. The meetings are also for them to support one another, they have to be a tight team. Very often they are running the sessions. We want volunteers to develop their skills and build on them. The meetings are rarely negative in fact they're lovely to sit in on. After that, they're done and that's where the worker bees stop.
Then the centre is so quiet and I look out of my window and I think my gosh this was full of people-noise an hour ago. Within an hour the whole building is cleaned spotless. Reception still takes calls and enquiries. Advice workers will be doing work leftover from the morning. They need to research the issues raised and check legal, or medical information, all and any kind of information. I will be recruiting volunteers, running training courses. We will have staff supervision, team meetings. Sometimes I don't turn my computer on till 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
We've never dealt with everything. You never catch up it's a constant list. It's an emotional rollercoaster too. Sometimes I think my god if another day is like that I can't get on. But then I think of the alternative, sitting in an office going out to see clients once a day and I don't want to go back to that. There will be moments of joy and hilarity, often just after a storm, giggles after someone's kicked over a locker because they're so upset.
Then people come in dropping off donations. And there is a constant trickle of people being referred from the council. They send the homeless people over to us. Sometimes I think they use us as an easy fix, to bounce people away. It doesn't stop until we stop at 4 o'clock.
A friend was asking what do you do? I said I can't really explain it all go and look at our website. He watched one of our videos online. He rang later and said "It's so amazing what you do!" Then you forget the panics and the worries. It's overwhelming in every way, both good and bad. Extreme. You know a moment when your friend comes to see you with a problem? And you managed to help and somehow had a wonderful experience doing so, it's like that. But too complex to explain. It's because I care and don't want to see them in pain. It's because I want to see them happy and safe.
Interviewed by Phil Davenport at The Booth Centre Aug 2015
|Left in the Concrete Forest, by Tim, book detail. The Homeless Library exhibition, Poetry Library, The Southbank, London until 18 September|