Friday, 14 August 2015

Kept in the dark

This is a conversation with an anonymous contributor to The Homeless Library, who uses the support and various facilities at The Booth Centre. He asks - why are so many people homeless and who should count them?


Count them. If you want to look at the issue of homelessness count them, that's a good start. In other words, don't fudge, don't lie. In part it's a case of disbelief. I got shown the archways in London. You want to look at homelessness in London - tens of thousands of people live like this. My eyes have seen it. Now multiply that situation. 

What's the population of England? 60 odd million. And some again, uncounted.

This is a good place to start on issues. Count. If you go to a shop and buy something and you don't put the right money on the table what will happen? If you insist it is the right money the guy will say either you can't count or you're lying, which is it? This is the same thing. Official figures say that homelessness is this. But the real homeless figures are going to be around 2 million in the UK. It's unbelievable but it's true. People are on the street day and night.

How long has this been an issue? Centuries, centuries. If you're not going to face up to the problem, then not counting is a clever approach. Just don't acknowledge it. You see 1 million people homeless and say it's 1000.

There is accommodation available but they'd sooner put you in prison or have you begging. Then you're making your own money and hopefully for them you're not visible. When you've got money you're not visible, you're shopping or buying drugs. If you've got money and you're on the streets then you're less visible than an obvious beggar. Say you're selling drugs and you're not on benefits, you will not be seen,  you won't be counted. That doesn't mean you aren't homeless. People don't like to look at homelessness, don't like to look at begging, its not nice. People don't like looking at the homeless, especially in London in all its glory.

Other people cry their bloody eyes out to see it everyday. The same old people and new people coming in all the time. Even if they make money, they're still stuck there. And if you're on the streets with a fortune what do you do then? - you become a heroin addict or whatever.

How many homeless people in the UK do you think are drug users or alcoholics? You don't know that either, and that's the point. You think if you looked up statistics it should tell you. But in all this world where do you find an accurate reflection? The research work is going to be flawed quite obviously, if you're starting off with the wrong numbers.

The hostels are full of people who are homeless, the hospitals and the prisons are full of people who are homeless. They don't have a home to their name. And of course that's not counting the people who "aren't counted". I don't understand why, don't understand at all. There's official figures and there's unofficial, very big difference in both sets of statistics.    

Transience has probably increased. You got the same people have been transient many years and then more and more from hospitals and prisons. If you're not registered homeless how the hell can you be included in official statistics?

How would you count them? You'd count when you are out and about. You'd ask people where are they stopping how long they've been on the streets and do they know anyone else similar and where would they be? People are usually happy to help, although they won't say everything because the only privacy they have is others not knowing where they sleep. The ones who disappear into the night. 

In all honestly I think people don't want to feel the embarrassment of talking about homelessness. If everyone in this room had lied for 40 or 50 years on a certain issue how would you raise that issue? How would you approach it? I tell you what you'd do. Rather than embarrass yourself in front of everyone you'd lie too.

Interview with Phil Davenport at The Booth Centre August 2015

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. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Joe and the word "homeless" (part 2)

Homeless protest camp, St Anne's Square, Manchester, August 2015

Many homeless people have been kind enough to grant interviews to us for The Homeless Library. We have also spoken to staff in organisations that work with homeless people. Here, advice worker Joe Barson from The Booth Centre defines the word "homelessness", calling on Marx, Eric Hobsbawm and Post-Modernism for help. This is the second half of Joe's interview.


I'm a Marxist, it's an interesting way of understanding the world. Marx was groundbreaking, in fact he broke everything - down to basics. People use their labour to create commodities and they use the commodities to survive. Eric Hobsbawm (the historian) suggested that there is more unemployment these days because capitalism no longer requires the same levels of labour. If there's not enough need for labour they become superfluous humans. I've started to accept that analysis.

In the 1980s we closed mines and destroyed communities. That legacy is still with us we still haven't compensated. There is a mass of humans who haven't got work, or dignified work at least. So rather than "homeless" I see a group of people who are "workless" and are therefore unable to home themselves; some get housed, some don't. There's no place in creating or producing for them, which is what we require of society's members. Therefore they are rejected. Some of them get a bit of help, some fall through gaps. That's capitalism and it's just not good enough. But there's no alternative because we've discredited it.

If you discredit the USSR, you discredit the theory of Marxism. Then you can ignore Marx - hence the rise of neoliberalism. Homelessness is a by-product of the social and economic situation we live in and its an economic situation which seems unchallenged. I believe if we didn't live in a property-based society but in a community-owned society, our way of interacting would be different. I'd hope there'd be greater acceptance.

Which neatly leads me onto Post-Modernism! This is a more difficult idea. One that I'm struggling with, trying to connect to Marxism. The idea goes that If you can start to break down or challenge discourses you begin to remove oppressive structures in our society. The basic idea by Foucault is that our way of understanding the world is by linguistic discourses. For instance, we treat mental health as a health issue because the discourse has become medicalised. Homosexuality has a separate identity to heterosexuals as they are labelled and constructed in discourse as different. We try to identify people through labelling and it doesn't work. Even the labels of Men and Women can be broken down. But these discourses can be linked to the economic structure. The change in women being allowed into the workplace surely comes from the fact that capitalism no longer needs such a sharp division in gender roles?

Back to homelessness. The situation of people who don't meet the norm created by the economic structure can be looked at with fresh eyes using post modernism. If a man doesn't behave as a man is supposed to he's ostracised. Being abnormal can lead to social alienation and possibly homelessness. The reasons that we ostracise people are very relevant to homelessness. Post-Modernism might help us challenge these norms, these words and labels we blithely use.

Sign outside homeless camp, under motorway flyover, Oxford Road Manchester Aug 2015 

I don't believe homelessness has to exist, or has always existed. If you go back to pre-agricultural society, way way back, there is evidence that suggests a major change occurred when we started farming the land as opposed to hunter gathering. They've found evidence of Neanderthal society looking after their disabled, not disposing of them as some may presume. We now think there were people who were blind living 20 or 30 years, disabled children living four or five years. It wasn't a brutal society they looked after each other. We could learn a lot from them, you might even say that we've been going backwards since then.

Our idea of progress is based on technical innovation, whereas our social relations are degenerating. Very early on we had bonds of care but then with the rise of agriculture we became more brutalised. There was a need for people to be fitter if they were to be useful and a need for more and more bodies. All this coincided with a rise in woman-robbing. When I look at society today it seems to me that the government policies and codes of behaviour are all about whether you can work or not in a capitalist labour market - and if not you are ostracised. The economic structure needs to be understood to understand how we relate to one another in society.

We have an impersonal society and I think that's something that affects a lot of people who come here, into the Booth Centre. I am idealist, it irritates people but fuck 'em. I'd like to finish this interview by quoting Trotsky, for all his sins: "Life is beautiful. Let us rid it from all evil, oppression and violence, so everyone can enjoy it to the full."

Interview with Phil Davenport at The Booth Centre July 2015

The arthur+martha project 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. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Joe and the word "homeless" (part1)

                           Manchester citizens, Piccadilly approach 2015

The arthur+martha project 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

As well as interviewing the many homeless people who have been kind enough to talk to us, we have spoken to staff in organisations that work with homeless people. Here, advice worker Joe Barson from The Booth Centre tries to define the word "homelessness". It's a definition that is crucial right now in Manchester since the recent homeless protests. If that H-word is applied to you, it might get you fined or imprisoned...

My parents pushed education on me; I went to Uni and did history. I left wanting to use the skills in a more constructive way than just being an academic, I wanted to work supporting people. I enjoyed academia, but it's so airy-fairy and I wanted to get my hands on something. I went into mental health work and then on to a hostel in Stockport which gave me the opportunity to do homeless advice.

I've always been aware that we live in and an unequal society where your place at birth determines your life. That made me want to do something about the unfair suffering a lot of people have to endure. My father's family are working class and work hard and didn't get much. I was exposed to more middle-class education and I've been aware of a stark difference for me. My dad was in the police force and was aware of injustice and so was my grandpa...

The way I see myself as an advice worker in the homeless community is that I am able to do stuff and think in a way that is useful to people, because of the education I've been lucky enough to receive. It's a question for me. I have a comfortable wage and a house and yet I'm advising people who have nothing. Would I act differently in their position, would they act differently in mine?

I was talking to my partner - we were asking can you define homelessness? Are they a unified group or a mass with diverse origins and groupings? The label homeless comes from categorising people economically, seeing them as a cohesion but they're not really. Have we created an underclass from these individuals, a disenfranchised mass? I like that term, you can write that one down!

There's different ways people come to be called homeless. A claim on the label homeless is that these are a group of people without houses, but even the way they experience not having a house is different for each and every one. Someone new to it is going to experience homelessness differently to someone who has been living on the streets for 20 years.

You can then subdivide those categories down into two groups if you like. Some people lose their homes because of circumstances and some because there's no one willing to accommodate them. Seriously mentally ill people, drug users, people with chaotic lives. But homelessness has not always existed in this way. There's always people who don't reach society's norm. In different times they've been called different things.

(Second half of this interview to follow shortly)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A proper English forest

In this second part of his interview for The Homeless Library, artist Andris discusses the pressure to conform, in Latvia where he grew up - and the reasoning behind his escape plan.


You see I'm here (The Booth Centre homeless centre) I'm troubled person. 

As soon I was born, able to walk, I remember we were on our own me and my second brother. We were playing with other kids ourselves. It was in my country Latvia, in Talsi, not in city centre in countryside. Parent not around much. In Soviet Union, everyone had to work - if you didn't work three days you went jail. Maybe you managed to hide a day, but yes. Steal a pencil from the Soviet Union, death sentence - property of the government. I like Marx he's good but as soon as Stalin came in he fucked up everything. If you didn't work cos you need money you're gonna steal. With my mum it was like that, milking cows, half hour away. With my dad he was always away. My father was always working on a tractor, ploughing harvesting the cereals...

Nothing really happened. That shade of colour I can tell you I remember it as yellowish-grey very white and grey, dry. Everything was very cubed, shaped. A bit like low resolution. Everyone knew when you left school you get a job. Simple like that, not sophisticated. It had a shade. It's a damnation, a down, a system. None trusted to no one, not even family members. You could talk about things and next day "Cheka" (secret police) is coming and you're going to be sent away somewhere you're fucked. You gotta run away. 

Schools we were restricted. Being told not to use left hand for writing - learned to write with my right but I'm left handed. I was forced to write with right hand. Loads of other things. I was a kid I can't give you a solid opinion. In schools we had corporal punishment stuff like that. Strict. All about politics.

I was in Latvia, we were occupied by Russia. And ruled by Russia, but called Soviet Union. We had no freedoms couldn't give our opinions. If your opinion was for the Soviet then you could tell your opinion.

My case no money no chance to get job. OK, job but paid half a week pay for full month. Even less. Always not enough. That's why I left I decided I don't need to spend my talents for someone who will never appreciate what I do. First time when I came here to UK I was 21 something like that. Financial situation forced me, nothing else. I have never been supported by my own family; convinced I was daft and ugly. 

I had a job awhile and I simply just left. I was working very hard excessively. Like a lumberjack. Imagine eight hours lifting heavy weights. Eight hours. I was about three times stronger than I am now. When you go in a gym you work to make a shape, when you do a job you use all your body to make the job easier, it's not about making a shape. 

I really wanted to go in university. But I realised I was forced in lowest level where you're forced to steal, rob. Loads of effort, purposeless. Got registered in Facebook and saw pictures of England and decided yes I'd like to make a trip here, do fishing...I'm from countryside I love nature, that's why I love to see different types of forest. In Poland I've seen forest. Then I went in Germany it was even more beautiful, different pines with long needles. Big cones, like a grenade. I would like to see different plants, make into art and put on wall. 

To get out I was hitchhiking. Just because I needed a job and got no money. I got over the border, one lorry driver took me over. When I came in Northern Ireland it was frustrating, everything opposite way, traffic system and all. I had no English language. First months was very difficult, I was developing language and simply learning. 

I had a picture of English forest, looks scary, freaks you out a little. I enjoy that sort of thing... I would like to see a proper dense English forest cos they're like jungles. In Poland I was going in woodlands, covered in leaves, crawling plants. Morning Glory everywhere a proper bloom. Beautiful. I like mountains very much. 

What I will do is take one or two weeks and gather natural berries. No supermarket will compete with my ones picked by hand in my own kettle, with sugar the amount I think. This morning I found one cherry tree and I climbed up and started eating. People looking at me, thinking is that poison?

(Signing permission form) I sign this to say I sell my soul! It's true, you got me. A giraffe running away from a lion becomes a lion when it is eaten. It's an exchange of energy. We are all matter, energy. It amazes me. I sleep under one archway and sometimes it's like that. Hunters. I'm thinking in my sleeping bag questions of life, nothing else.

Andris Lauva was interviewed for The Homeless Library by Phil Davenport at The Booth Centre, July 2015. All videos by Andris Lauva, all rights reserved. To see more YouTube work by Andris go to his YouTube channel. (NB These video works were made independently by Andris Lauva, not in arthur+martha workshops.)

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.