Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Ambassador of Piccadilly Gardens


Homelessness is like a foreign country. It's like being dropped into the middle of nowhere. The first thing you need is somewhere safe, not just dry but a safe place most of all. Then food, dry clothes. Then you need to get a shower. Then try to get to know all the organisations that will help you because they're going to be your best friends. They are the lifelines, not other people who are homeless. 

For me my first night it was throwing it down raining just before Halloween when the winter kicks in. I used to sleep in the gardens under the bench for the first few months. Didn't know if I'd wake up in the morning. It was a blessing if I did. 

Close my eyes and I can put myself back there. You don't have friends you have associates. You never know if you can trust them as people move on all the time. You don't know if you see them tomorrow or if you'll ever see them again. You've got to know someone to trust them.

I slept in Piccadilly Gardens in the city centre because it was where I felt safe. It was open and I knew the area was camera-ed with CCTV. I could shout for help. If you're out in some park under a tree and something happens no one will hear you. I used to sleep for about an hour or an hour and a half. You don't really sleep you've got one eye open. There is the noise of the traffic, people passing by. You go to sleep with exhaustion. 

I've woke up and my trainers were gone. You don't feel them going but you feel the cold on your feet, that cold will wake you up alright. I've woken up with no laces in my trainers. I don't know how they do it steal the laces from your shoes while you sleep.

I used to go to Cornerstones. I'd walk up Oxford Road to Cornerstones. Sit outside the doorstep on Denmark Road. Inside sat there reading the paper all day propping yourself on the table. The manager she does her best. Leave about 4pm, walk back to the gardens late afternoon to early evening and wait for them to come out with hot food again.
The Mustard Tree opens late on a Friday, comfy chairs and you're inside. That's the highlight of the week they all talk about it, the homeless ones. The staff don't rush you to leave they know you will be back on the streets. They know you appreciate a comfy chair and a plate of hot food in front of you - won't be in a hurry to go back down them stairs.

Then there is Danzig Street but there's been a lot of murders in the showers. Danzig Street years ago was a school; you can still see the rooms are like classrooms. It opens at six in the morning it's for homeless people who are up at that time. 

On Piccadilly Gardens I could see people in view, but I wouldn't associate too close. A lot on the streets take drugs, I don't. I remember talking to a minister and he said you will go on drugs if you stay on the street. But I've always been strong enough to say no. Only drugs I take are ones given by my doctor.

Drugs and alcohol. Their eyes are gone and when they get beaten up for their money they don't even know who's done it. Down on Piccadilly it's like they're just waiting for new drugs. I take pictures of them all the time on my phone (shows phone picture). Try to shame them out of it. This one had been taking legal highs. Legal highs and all that. Guy the other day turning grey, dying in front of me.

I showed a couple of Polish guys a picture of themselves, they said, "No way were we like that!"  I said, "There is the picture you were hanging off the bench eyes shut." I said, "There is nothing to be proud of." When you mix legal highs with alcohol you go grey and near die. 

Homelessness - what you gain is understanding. Then you pass on the information you find. That's how conversations often start for me. Before today I've been called the Ambassador of Piccadilly Gardens. Them Community Police Officers said I should be the Ambassador. They said I've got respect and trust from the homeless. Trust is priceless. If people know you've been on the streets they know you've been through it too. 

© Paul Jones

I've got a bond with them, been homeless myself. I don't cause trouble I try to help. Yesterday I spoke to a young lad, a babyface. It was raining and I got him an umbrella - you should've seen him smile. I can afford to buy an umbrella now. Said he was called Ryan, I don't know, it could've been his street name. People are running away on the streets. They often have a street name. Could've been anything in his life: violence, family stuff, death. Living on the street is sometimes people's way of grieving. 

I did socialise I used to be in that circle. With each other they was always arguing over money drugs and beer. They used to know each other's pay days. "He gets paid on a Thursday." They couldn't seem to understand why they kept being robbed. When you're drunk on drugs you don't know what you're saying and who's listening. You tell someone who is addicted to whatever when you're getting money and where you cash it and what do you think is going to happen? Let me guess you got mugged when you got your money. Piccadilly politics they call it, knowing everybody's business. People say "I'm getting DLA tomorrow" and next thing they got a broken nose and black eyes, what a surprise. 

People want to be in the circle because then they feel protected rather than walking the streets on their own. I used to be with them but I knew when to be quiet and just listen. I knew when to keep me own business to me self. I'd go off and do my stuff by myself. But to get help or to help someone else you have to have trust - and there wasn't a lot of trust out there.

Interviewed by Phil at The Booth Centre July 2015

Sarah © Paul Jones

The beautiful, sensitive photos are taken by Manchester photographer Paul Jones and are shared here with his permission. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Legal Highs and the Prison Trade

As part of the project 'The Homeless Library' we are gathering accounts of people's lives, what led them into homelessness, or out of it and their day-to-day existence on the street. Today I heard about the devastation caused by legal highs from two men at The Booth Centre

"People coming out of prison should be a priority for somewhere to live, but when I went to the town hall they say you’re no priority. A friend of mine came out, they said you’re not a priority-he ended breaking the windows in there, just to be arrested, he wanted somewhere to sleep not be on the streets.

Detail of poem for The Homeless Library, The Booth Centre.

"Most people come out have no place to go, the law is on the opposite side, a couple of weeks and they are back in, homelessness aggravates it - nobody wants to stay on the street, a little thing and they’re locked up again. I think they should be given more priority, or they’ll be causing more crime.

"Was in the Maze, Strangeways. They promise you the moon, let you out of prison with nowhere to go and I didn’t get a discharge grant.

"Many people don’t know where their heads are. If I had somewhere now that would be a start, get off the streets and it’s easier to deal with other problems.

"Most people, so confused in prison - smoking that 'Spice', ‘cotton’ themselves, hurting themselves. Spice, it’s a chemical, legal high, it's so addictive people go back, everyone’s taking it in prison. You get strung along to easy, and sometimes you just can’t say no. It’s worse then heroin, people are coming off heroin and going onto Spice. Even some of the screws bring it in. It cost £250 a quarter in prison, everyone fighting for survival in there. A coke bottle cap full of Spice will cost you £250. They can’t test you for it.’ Other names, Mambo, Spizzel, you can get the times 100, but everyone uses the times 1000, the most dangerous."

(His friend joins in the conversation)  

"I died twice in prison with Spice, my stomach kind of snapped, I asked for help to come off, but nothing. You only need two puffs and you're gone." (We talk some more) "I’ve been in prison 20 years, I’m 34, I just want a chance, I’m embarrassed to ask for help..."

For more information about Spice in prisons, visit: 

The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

We carry scars

For Holocaust Memorial Day 2016

In 2007 Lois and I started a project that worried us both. We were to work with holocaust survivors at The Morris Feinmann Home, a home for older Jewish people in Manchester. We had met with many war veterans, but this was different. Some of these people had been witness to continual atrocity, for years.

The things that stay in your mind. A woman described leaving Berlin, getting onboard the kindertransport train. Her mother waving goodbye with a sandwich that she'd forgotten to give her daughter. The mother died in Germany, they did not see one another again. Another day. A conversation with a woman who'd survived Auschwitz. She wanted to tell us about the experience, but each time she began to speak, the memories would self-erase - she described them melting away. Perhaps the amnesia protected her. Another. A quiet man sitting with two talkative companions. He had managed to get out of one of the camps, but had a memento - a gouge in his skull, left by a blow with an iron bar from an SS man. He gently put my fingers onto the wound - "See?"

Because the weight of the subject was so vast, we needed to give people the option to enter it only if they wished. We decided to talk about little things, rather than the horrific or vast. We chatted about small domestic moments. Family recipes, holidays, travel. From the travel stories a series of tiny collaborative poems were made. They described train journeys, some to the camps in cattle wagons, others journeys of escape.

onscreen, Piccadilly Railway Station 2009

The poems were made into 30 second films and on 27 January 2009 they were shown on a huge screen at Piccadilly Station. Approximately 60, 000 people saw the films that day. Among them were a little group of survivors, who came with us to sit in the cafe near the screen and watch their words being shared. It was a strange tea party; none of us knew whether to say hurrah, or to weep. But everyone wanted to stay.

For the last 5 years we have worked with homeless people, in the UK and elsewhere, who are often the victims of hate crimes. We have met people who've been humiliated, beaten, raped, stabbed, shot, set on fire. I've seen a good many more scars since that quiet conversation in the Morris Feinmann Home.

Now is not 1939. We are elsewhere in history. A completely different time, completely different circumstances. But still we carry scars.

onscreen, Piccadilly Railway Station 2009

These text animations were part of the Kindness project run by arthur+martha at the Morris Feinmann Home 2007-9. They were exhibited on HMD 2009 at Piccadilly Railway Station, Manchester; then on HMD 2011 on the BBC Big Screen in Manchester. We would like to offer our most heartfelt thanks to all participants (names withheld here). We would also like to thank Maria Turner, Becky Guest, Jeremy Buxton, the BBC and Titan signs for various and sometimes courageous support.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Jumble sales, second hand clothes revamped

'The late 40s, early 50s mum used to go to school or village hall sales. She’d buy the biggest coats and clothes she’d could find, pull them apart and make our clothes. She’d even take woolens apart to re-knit. 

Ann's embroidery for the quilt 'Fresh Air and Poverty'

In the 1920s my mother used to follow the coat cart and the horses and pick up dropped pieces of coal for the fire, and manure for the gardens. There was an elephant in Sheffield that used to pull carts full of coal or wood.

Aged 10 my mother went to a house with 2 children before school. She’d wash and dress them, get them ready for school then go to school herself. She’d have her breakfast at school, a big slice of bread with dripping and a mug of cocoa.' Ann Gill.

Ann and Annette stitching.

Back at Blythe House Hospice today for 'Stitching the Wars',  Ann's reminiscences took me back to my own childhood, weekends spent at Jumble Sales, the excitement of getting a bargain, the smell of moth balls and stale clothes from deep in the cupboard, the itchiness and dust, elbows up ready for a battle. Black Friday had nothing on Jumble sale Saturday.

Thanks so much to all of the 'Stepping Stones' group who contributed to the stitching and conversation.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Snow White and LSD

It maybe a bit simplistic, but there seem to be two distinct types among the homeless people I have met - those who share intimate and often shocking personal details about their lives on first meeting, and others that take their time, observe, build trust.  Most people are naturally curious and sometimes going round the houses, going the long way can bring the closest connection.

After a morning of jovial competition- who can name the most fairytales... A seemingly simple exercise, but actually allows conversations to flow into other areas and curiosity into the wider goals of the project Sing me to Sleep. 

After many brief conversations with M, up to now he has been on the outside looking in,  a little break through occurred. He was curious about the quilt making, it turns out that when he was at school one of his teachers threw him out of his class so he was sent to home economics- where he learn't how to sew. As we sat and stitched together, we both relaxed into it, he told me how therapeutic he found it, that it was being creative that had helped him deal with his addictions to drink and drugs.

Like so many people we meet at the Homeless Resource centre's, he had difficult start to life. '
--> My mother had mental health problems, kicked me out when I was 15, I’d travel around, do things on the spur of the moment. Started smoking cannabis at 13, LSD at 14, my mothers valium and one or two other things from her medicines. Me and my mates would take her valium with a bottle of cider, the police would arrest us when we got aggressive which the mix made you'. 

He tells me that he is clean, he looks calmer, more at ease than I have seen him before. I wish him well and hope he will follow us onto The Booth Centre Manchester, where the project moves onto in a couple of weeks. 

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Loneliness + Isolation vs. Cosiness + Warmth

Today while working on 'The Homeless Library' at the Booth Centre, Manchester I met Phil. Phil is currently homeless, in and out of night shelters, waiting since last Spring to be housed. Last night Phil slept rough after a relentless train of events led to him missing his place in the shelter. With sleepy eyes and head, he still managed to engage with us thoughtfully and creatively - even after a night of solid no-sleep. Perhaps that's one of the biggest joys joys of art making, it takes you out of yourself - and for an hour or two you enter a different real.

Phil and his folded books

There's a lot of talk about loneliness among our older generations and the impact it can have on peoples health and wellbeing- but it's something that can hit any of us at any age and for Phil loneliness contributed to homelessness.

'I were happy having a flat, cosy and warm but not having anyone to talk to…. 
(Rough sleeping?) ‘This time its been since December 10th last year. At the moment we’re sleeping in Churches and chapels, all done through the Church and The Booth Centre. (* The Greater Manchester Winter Night Shelter) Sleeping inside the church- I’m a Methodist, I hadn’t been into a chapel since I was a kid. Everyday it’s a different place, think they’ve just started it recently. The Booth Centre knows before we go out. Last night would have been in a foyer of a church, another place a room- all with campbeds, better than a mattress on the floor. There might be 9 people sleeping there, varies. Its good of them to do it, they open at 6.30, earlier than the other shelters and you get a warm meal at night.

The other shelters, there’s the night shelters at Hulme Library that opens at 8.45 or 9.15. In Harper Hey, that opens 8- 8.30 at the latest, as far as I know they are run by the council. You get toast and a warm drink and cold food, but with the Church you get a hot meal- very considerate of them to do it. The rucksack I’ve got now was given to me by one of the vicars.

I leave the shelters, then come here, then me and Wally go to the library- I’ll probably fall asleep there- I missed my bus stop last night and missed the shelter last night, had to sleep rough- didn’t sleep.

'My Journey, Bloody' artist book made by Phil.

Up to last night I haven’t slept rough, not this time, but in the 80s spent two years sleeping on the streets in Lancaster, back of the town hall on a bench. In them days there were more chance of getting into a B&B or into a flat, there were more of them. Now there’s nothing.  Where are all these council places they’re meant to be building? You look around and there are empty buildings, empty factories, they could be turned into places to live.

When I was younger I had a decent life, I travelled in Germany, Belgium- my dad was serving in the Signals, in the army.

Got to take each day as you can. I had my own flat in Oldham for 9 months, but nobody was talking, none of the neighbours, everyone was unfriendly. So I gave it up, I went back to me mothers where I was brought up.

What (personal possessions) I have is at my mothers, my City and Guilds Certificate for welding. There’s not a lot of that trade, not much knocking out of doors now, cheaper to replace them with new.

I’ve got 3 homeless applications in 3 different councils, and still nothing from any of them. Kirklees I put that one in half way through last year, Bradford put in the spring of last year, Preston put in 4 and a half months ago and still nothing- applying for a house so not on the streets as you can see.

I were happy having a flat, cosy and warm but not having anyone to talk to….'

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Wednesday, 13 January 2016

From a train in Lithuania

We have started our first international project Sing Me to Sleep, a collaboration between homeless people in the UK and Lithuania. The project is themed around fairytales and forests. Here is a little flavour of Lithuanian woodlands, from Phil and Julia's explorations. Other instalments to follow...

This is written looking out of the train window while passing through the forests of Lithuania. As we leave Vilnius, factory chimneys turn to trees. It is a bright frosty morning and everything seems to be either a pine tree or a silver birch, a little wooden house or a factory chimney. This is our big day out of Vilnius, to the next largest city Kaunas where there's an art biennial. Julia and I thought it'd be good to see another place and to have the chance to rattle through the countryside. Apparently there are wolves in the woods, though we haven't seen any. To make up for the lack, the train hoots in atmospheric fashion. It also makes church bells sounds when we near a station and issues announcements in Lithuanian.

Mile after mile of woodland. Eyefuls of trees! I've also been told that many of the homeless folk we've met live out in the woods during summertime. Too cold now though, just starting to drop below freezing and it'll be minus 30 by the time it really gets wintry.

It's a fascinating place with whole archaeologies of hidden stories and histories - we've just scratched the surface. After four very intense days with our kind hosts Ieva and Simona, Lois has gone home and Julia and I have now started to shift to holiday mode. I've done a lot of deep sleeping and we've been pottering about nibbling cakes. Vilnius has got a pretty centre and at this time of year it's not touristy, simply a quiet bustle of ordinary people.

The churches are beautiful baroque places, rather like tiny palaces but it is the crosses and wooden carvings that I've found most moving. The crucifixes are hand carved and look rough at first glance but take as bit of time they become powerful, brimful of emotion. Crosses are important here because the USSR discouraged people from celebrating or even showing their Lithuanian identity. Consequently the crosses seem to have been a symbol of resistance to the Russians. There is a famous hill covered in many thousands of hand carved crosses that was bulldozed three times by the Russians, but each time it was destroyed people sneaked through the sentry lines in the night to put more crucifixes back.

On another of our sorties we go into the woods above Vilnius. Tucked in among the trees we find what looks to be a series of offerings. Fruit and vegetables tied in the trees and laid out in patterns on the ground. Lithuania became Christian far later than most European countries and there are traces of the pagan past to be found in many places, often alongside the Christian rituals there is a much older iconography...

Apple offering

Carrot man

Friday, 8 January 2016

Daydreaming on the night-shift

To shut eyes
Past memories that have been awoke
To perceive
Encounters in
The most inaccessible regions
Music from my past
Of the seen and never-seen.


Philip writes:

A downpour of icy rain and ankle deep puddles mark the first session of the year for The Homeless Library. I arrive at the Booth Centre soaked through, shivering and sneezing. I have been in the rain for approximately one hour. Many of the people around me drinking cups of steaming tea or hunched over baked beans on toast have been out all night for many, many nights.  They blink themselves into activity in the bright lights and noise of the canteen.

Phil and Paddy

The workshop starts. This is the beginning of the new term as it were. The plan for today is to be playful and gentle. Lois has brought in a set of postcards for collaging, which people take great delight in subverting, tweaking and generally messing with. We start things in as light a way as we can at the beginning of a run of workshops. Humour is preferable to heaviness and optimism beats the cynical. Our helpers Juliet and Christine are amazing cheerleaders for the upbeat.

I ask people to write about their dreams. Just a line or two. These are then cut up put into lines, put in a hat and taken out one by one to be read as a surrealist poem. It's a nice party trick and a rich if well-worn technique to bring to creative writing. It also produces some genuinely lovely lines - and some juxtapositions so outrageous they make people gasp. We try another tack. I invite people to write a description of a recurring dream down one half of a piece of paper and a Salvador Dali quote down the other half. Dali's words intertwine with their own; it's a potent cocktail.

These little poetic pieces are rewritten onto the back of the collage postcards. A wish you were here card from the subconscious.

As with many of our sessions the morning passes in a rush and a push. The people involved are sometimes in a very volatile state. There's a lot of goodnatured banter but also some more destructive undercurrents. And some sad glimpses. One person I was talking to mentioned that their recurring dream was of being raped by their father over and over again, as they had been during their childhood.

Reading the poems later as I type them up for our records, I am struck by the melancholy that so many of them contain.

From the top of the mountain to the bottom of the sea thru the snow and thru the wind and thru the dust all-a all-a lone lone - a boat, no one on it...


In amongst the word play and phantasmagoria are little snapshots of people trying to make sense of their lives, looking for a path to acceptance. But how do you make sense of your life story when the scriptwriter is so harsh?

Daydreaming on the night shift
Forgetting all the moaning of the morning
That mushroomed into the afternoon
Still not believing in the evening.

"Riff Raff"

The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Huntsman

"Fairytales- how life should be and how it is, there is normally a happy ever after and the challenge when your in a situation like this is steering yourself to the happy ever after no matter what ever challenges you’ve got." Anon at The Wellspring

Today saw the start of workshops for our new art quilt and poetry project 'Sing me to Sleep'. The Wellspring Stockport, (A resource centre for homeless and disadvantaged people) played host to conversation, questions and sharing of samples. The theme 'Fairytales' has become more specifically the Fairytale Forest or Forest Fairytale if you like. It felt good to be talking about such an open subject, full of potential for creativity and to go in many directions, everyone had something to say.

Sample stitching for 'Sing me to Sleep'

Kenny doesn't remember any fairytales, but stories gathered from his experiences are so different than most of ours, they feel a perfect place to start.

" 2 or 3 years the longest I’ve spent out in the forest. I don’t need anyone. You keep yourself occupied collecting wood, food, water, kept active. I didn’t meet anyone, walkers would go past but never see me. I’d hunt at night, sleep in the day. There’s more fish at night, rabbits, deer, pheasant, partridges, I’d go to the edge of the wood and get wire from the farmer field for snares. 
In Sherwood Forest, had no tent, got to make your own from two trees, a couple of branches, interwove with reeds, bracken for your bed. No sleeping bag, lay more bracken on top of yourself.

First thing when you get there is make your shelter, find food, find your water supply and make fire. The natural spring comes through limestone, so pure water. All I need is a knife or use a flint or slate. Used to skin the rabbits with a slate, stretch the skin out on a square frame made with reeds- as it dries out it doesn’t shrink, use it for gloves and boot covers. Used pheasant feathers to fish with, made a hook with barbed wire, you can always get barbed wire in the forest. Water containers made with rabbit skin, rubbed with pheasant fat to keep it water tight. I was taught by my grandfather.

The best thing in the world is to catch a Roe Deer and kill it. It’s an easy thing to do, you find the trail they take to water, dig a hole, cover it with bracken. Hide down wind under bracken so they can’t smell you, then jump down into the hole and with a big knife slit its throat. It tastes better when its been bleed. Cut it into thin strips, cook it then you can dry it and it would last for months. I’d eat every bit of it- used the antlers for tools, nothing was wasted. (used to work in a Slaughter House, so knew how to gut an animal and kill it.) After a while you wont smell to animals anymore, covered in animal skins, washing in the stream. (I still have all my skins)
Eat wild garlic, in winter there’s no garlic so dry it and use that, and wild mushrooms and dry them- gorgeous. If you watch the badgers at night they go after the truffles. The biggest treat? Grouse, put it on the spit. I’ve eaten all sorts, even squirrel. Never go hungry, a variety of meat- get sick of eating the same thing. Whilst drying one meat eat another one fresh with dandelion leaves.  To dry the meat you cook it first then hang it up in the trees so animals cant get it. I had a little shelter so the meat wouldn’t get wet, but air could go through.

No one ever saw me because I was camouflaged. I smelt wild, gloves made out of rabbit skin, skins over my boots. Not a lot of people could live out there. I never used a torch in the dark, my eyes work better at night, during the day I wear glasses! 

I never got ill out there, only when I’m inside do I get ill. If you cut yourself get some reeds and tie it round, if you hurt your ankle get two pieces of wood, tied together with reed.

When it rained that was the hardest time to hunt, the animals don’t come out. When it snowed its easier to find them and warmer with the snow and bracken. Any animal if you get their trust will come to you, sat down next to your shelter. (what does it feel like?) Free, a free life, its like the music of the woods, the birds, animals and bees.

What’s stopping me going back? Me health, if you’re out there you’ve got nobody if you die, nobodies going to find you, the animals will eat you. Even that doesn’t frighten me. My girlfriend says ‘I can find you in a building, but not in the woods.’"

sample stitching for 'Sing me to Sleep.'