Clearing Things Up: Homelessness

One evening in January 2012, artist Sam Curtis and I sought out a series of conversations with street homeless people. This purpose of this was to resolve something, although exactly what that something was I couldn't quite put my finger on. It felt a bit like confusion. I thought it may have been to do with the following:

  • As someone often asked to present views on the situations of socially excluded groups, I felt the need to 'top up' a kind of tacit understanding of homelessness.

  • A concern about the terms by which homeless people are engaged, for example by organisations with a remit to reduce homelessness, rather make provisions as appropriate to homeless individuals. And curiosity as to what might happen when there was no remit.

  • An awareness that the majority of homeless people I work with are already engaged by an organisation and part 'rehabilitated', causing a desire to test or develop my own initial engagement skills.

  • A sense that homelessness, although a recurring theme in my research, may not be at the heart of my own cause.

  • A desire to extend my previous passing attempts at mutual conversation with street homeless people, which so far had been met with a series of - often increasingly sophisticated - begging pitches.

Sam approaches the first guy on the Strand and asks if he has time to talk. "I'm working". I was unsure of how much hostility we would encounter, but this seems a fairly straight forward request so we leave him to it. Perhaps naively, I am surprised that he refers to his begging as working.

Sam and I discuss tactics for not meeting similar responses from others. We decide to ask a direct question rather than ask if people had time to talk. We liken this to the psychological tricks of door-to-door sales people.

So, I approach the second guy and say: "Can I ask you a question?". Realising my very British error, I brace myself for failure. Luckily he looks slightly amused and says yes, so Sam and I settle down for a chat on the tiled entrance to the closed theatre.

Our gent offers me the end of his sleeping bag to keep me off the cold floor. I ask him what sort of people usually approach him on the street. "Christians", we share a knowing smile that confirms we are non-Christians all three. "And students". He also has some regulars that stop for a chat, this is his spot.

He has recently been kicked out of rehab, where he was previously doing well. He's keen to be seen to accept responsibility for this. So he's back on the street, where he has been on and off for 20 years.

A drinker, he says he's honest with his begging and doesn't pretend it is for food or a cup of tea. He finds people appreciate the honesty, in his experience. He shares his stories of past good days, with people giving him big notes, packets of cigs. He lists the exact and entire contents of a mixed bag of food given to him a couple of years back, on the same spot.

You get the feeling these stories are as preserved as pickle, through telling and retelling. They are stories, he is story telling, and our experience of them is predetermined. He asks no open questions of us, assuming the role of... entertainer, oracle, performer, salesman? We agree, laugh, gasp appropriately.

Does he find it lonely, being homeless? No. He tells a couple of horror stories about bad hostels and aggressive drunks. But there is a community of people.

What about the outreach workers? They'll find you anywhere, he smiles with acknowledgement at this skill. Any little hidey hole you think you've found. Does he mind them? No, they are just doing their job, making sure everyone is alright.

What about Westminster's plans to clean up the area by making homelessness illegal? He laughs. He heard something about that a while back but they'd never be able to do it.

After a while, it is clear that our time is running short. This gentlemen appears to have everything he needs today, unless we want to buy him a beer. In the spirit of attempting to find a mutuality, Sam and I have already agreed not to give money or goods. I felt an enormous urge to empty my pockets in his direction. Mutuality nil.

Next up we encounter the Big Issue seller near Leicester Square tube. To supplement his income he advertises himself as a local guide, offering much needed directions and advice to the hundreds of bewildered tourists passing his spot every day. Sam and I stand nearby, rolling cigarettes.

The gent approaches us and asks what our plans are for this evening. We suggest we will probably have a drink later, and he points out a couple of good pubs. He is buoyant and polite, but quickly susses us out as non-tipping.

Before he moves on to the next potential punter, I ask, "So you offer advice as part of your... thing?". Affirmative, he used to be a cabby, you see. Makes sense. "And people generally give you a tip for that?", I ask. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, he shrugs, always half an eye on the crowd, looking for the almost lost. Still in his Christmas hat, he bids us a good evening and continues with his work. We move on.

Homeless people seem scarce in town this evening. We make some tabloid jokes about homeless people being "everywhere until you actually want to see them". The fourth person we come across is down a back alley in Soho. He's sleeping stood up, perched on a ledge with his hood pulled right over his face. He really does not look like he wants to be disturbed. We continue past him, find a chippy, and sit in to chat about our encounters so far. The relative luxury of this seemed irrelevant somehow, perhaps condescending... "Aren't we lucky?", etc.

Sam works in a wet hostel, so is working with in-stably housed people on a daily basis. He has come out with me this evening to see if and how homelessness might intersect with his art practice, in a way he is not fully able explore as part of his job. I comment on how Sam is more hardened to giving handouts than me. Despite my urge to give the people we had spoken to money, I knew that giving would make me feel like the banker who had a moment of enlightenment, emptied his wallet, then forgot all about it by the time he got back to office. [Forgotten, perhaps, until he needs a good-guy anecdote on his next date. And yes, I have been on the receiving end of such a story. And no, it didn't work on me either.] The point is, I am out this evening to develop a methodology around the issue as part of my everyday practice... giving away my limited cash would be a very short-term solution for everyone.

As we venture back out onto the street, heading north towards Oxford St, we encounter another Big Issue seller. A Middle Eastern chap with an incredibly expressive face. He asks if we are English. We say we are, and he tells us an engaging story of love for richer and poorer... how his wife, whom he loved, was selling the Big Issue as we speak outside a theatre... of how they had been homeless together for a year. I for one was fully convinced that the simple solution to all of this was: buy a Big Issue. He was a very good sales man. I try to start up a conversation, but he doesn't understand much of what I am saying, so in the end I just wish him luck... and buy a Big Issue. Sam declined.

Our sixth guy is sat outside a cash point in Soho. He simply tells us to go away if we haven't got any money. After which we decide to call it an evening. I make my way home with my rather unwanted Big Issue, still not sure what I had been hoping to resolve, but with lots floating through my mind...

The adaptability and resilience of a couple of the people we had spoke to was astounding. They seemed to be performing.... when did they stop performing? And who with? If they are performing to me, then what does that make me? Funny how I feel excluded, that I am not allowed. How do I make the question bigger than that moment of us talking together, as part of their usual skit? They were so skilled at negotiating me into experiencing their situation in a certain way, for a certain result.

What does it mean to be continuously in the public realm, always surrounded by people, never out of sight? There is little ceremony to signify our encounter as any different from others they have experienced that day, somehow making me feel like an intruder in their home. There seems to be ingrained and sophisticated methods for dealing with such exchanges, and for a specific purpose. Mutuality was clearly too much of an ask within this practised and capitalised hierarchy, and perhaps a naïve ask to begin with.

Or perhaps there was an in-built failure in our choice of location. Westminster was our choice because of their dubious approach to homelessness. But maybe we were in the wrong place if we wanted to talk to people. The inner-city homeless were perhaps a certain, very public sort, with the centre of town drawing out a performative element - or at least the need for a solid mechanism to deal with the throngs of people. It is possible our choice of location provided us with a very small minority of homeless people, with a certain resilience.

And why, after seeing all these people, do I feel there is so little to be done? The issue seemed as complex as ever, though the fabric of this grey area is now more tangible to me. It is clear that all these people were there for their own reasons, their own personal stories, and each need unique answers to their problems... some of them answered by staying on the street. As much as I believe everyone has a right to a home, I also believe they have a right to be homeless.

Homelessness is a recurring theme in my research, and my sense that homelessness is not at the heart of my own cause was certainly confirmed. But only in as much that it is clearer to me that homelessness is not a singular problem to be approached, or an axis upon which problems turn. It is merely a manifestation of almost infinite social problems, hence its recurrence, and hence its confusion. Our evening may not have cleared up the issue homelessness for me, but at the very least it has helped me to articulate the grey area.