What Is Homelessness?

The answer to this first question may seem obvious, but during my brief research on homelessness in phase one, I’ve found that it doesn’t just concern people sleeping rough on the streets. There is a large variety of people who are currently classified as homeless, but which many people don’t think about.

Defining Homelessness

To find the answer to this question I’m going to start with a simple definition provided by Shelter. Their website gives very clear information about just what homelessness is. What’s surprising to me is that you can be considered homeless even if you have a roof over your head. The quality of your accommodation could be considered unsuitable if it has adverse affects on your health, or puts you at greater risk of violence. You can also classify as being homeless If you are living in a place which you can’t afford to and have to sacrifice your basic needs to stay in.

The legal definition of homelessness is important because local councils have a legal obligation to find long-term accommodation to those considered legally homeless. There are a huge range of factors that the council has to consider when deciding if someone is eligible for assistance. If the council doesn’t recognise you as being legally homeless, they still have an obligation to provide emergency short-term housing, usually in the form of hostels.

Shelter’s website also has a brief section on who is most vulnerable to being homeless.

Shelter is a source of really useful information, but I want to start thinking about the question in a different way. I want to know what homelessness feels like, what is looks like. I want to come at it from a human point of view and not just define it.

The Human Cost

To get a sense of what it must feel like to be homeless, I’m going to watch some documentaries. While I’m watching, I will be writing down the kind of emotions and trauma homeless people endure, as well as quotes from the people themselves.

Cutting Edge: Brian’s Story

Brian’s Story was a fascinating glimpse into how anyone can become homeless. I think it really brought home to me how devastating an untreated mental illness can be for someone in Brian’s position. I feel like it’s a travesty that he wasn’t helped earlier on in his life when his condition was first known. It’s obvious from the documentary that he didn’t do himself any favours, and was more often than not making excuses for himself. However, I feel like his erratic and destructive behaviour could have been avoided with sufficient care. He was given a lot of opportunities to get his life back on track, but was unable to take advantage of them because of his state of mind. This highlights for me how giving money can just be a temporary solution to a much larger problem hidden beneath. Someone could have given Brian a million pounds, but he still would have squandered it somehow. He needed mental health care, some kind of supervision. Although sadly for Brian his personality wasn’t conducive to this, he always craved freedom and independence, but unfortunately wasn’t equipped to deal with it. Before he was given the help he needed, Brian met a tragic end in London. He apparently fell from the roof of his hotel in a drunken state.

“It’s not my fault, people think it’s drink or drugs or something, it’s nothing you know? I just like this.” – Brian Davis receiving £150 ostensibly to interview Roman Polanski in Paris. I think he was trying to convince himself.

“Now what the hell do they want? Do they want to communicate with my mother by Ouija board cuz she died three years ago. What on earth else could they want? He’s been writing sick notes I know for 25 years, there is nothing wrong with it. I am not showing it to anyone. I’ll have it framed and sent with a fucking writ for a million quid. Tell Daviere that, and tell her to stuff it up her fucking arse, I’m sorry Sue, goodbye!” – Brian Davis on the phone trying to get his benefits.

“She was a saint, an amazingly strong incredibly nice generous person. My brother was severely mentally handicapped, she gave up her career, a successful career as an actress. She spent 50 years looking after him. My ambition is to be half as nice as she was, I’ll be doing well if I manage that.” – Brian Davis talking about his mother.

  • Frustrated.
  • Agitated.
  • Angry.
  • Deluded.
  • Bewildered.
  • Falsely optimistic.
  • Scared.
  • Dignified.
  • Cold.
  • Lonely.
  • Dirty.
  • Messy.
  • Proud.
  • Trapped.
  • Vulnerable.
  • Filthy.
  • Unhygienic.
  • Squalid.
  • Liar.
  • Arrogant.

Brian Davis was all of these things, but perhaps most of all he was vulnerable. Probably the most heartbreaking moment of the documentary was when Brian screamed:

“Please help me, please help me!” – Brian Davis, while sleeping on a bench.

This Cutting Edge documentary was filmed fifteen years ago. Perhaps mental health care has improved a great deal since then. To see if this is the case I want to watch a more recent documentary.

Professor Green: Hidden and Homeless

Hidden and Homeless deals with youth homelessness and the estimated 300,000 people who have a roof over their head, but no place to call home; the so-called hidden homeless. They could be living in hostels, squats, derelict buildings or sofa surfing. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the documentary was just how prevalent this kind of homelessness has become in recent years.

“Homelessness has many faces. It has every colour, every creed, every gender. You can walk past someone in a business suit man, this guy could be homeless. You don’t know. Don’t give homelessness a face, that’s what I say.” – Jerome, works full-time but is still homeless.

Manchester has seen the highest rise in homeless people under the age of 25. Many of these young people don’t know where to get help and end up sleeping rough when they otherwise wouldn’t have too. Once they have been exposed to the streets many are susceptible to prostitution, crime and drugs.

Homelessness is not just about not having a home, it goes far beyond that. Once people have been on the streets, what it does to them psychologically and who they become, and how they become accustomed to living their life doesn’t just go away once they’re given a home.” – Professor Green

An example of hidden homelessness which really brought the issue into focus for me was the story of Lauren and her four-year-old daughter Persia. They were evicted from their two bedroom house after Lauren was made redundant and fell into rent arrears. They were living in a friend’s cramped spare bedroom. Lauren had to sell her belongings to pay for food for her daughter.

“I know I’m being hard on myself, but I’ve let her down by not being able to provide her with a secure home.” – Lauren, in tears explaining how it feels to be homeless.

I think what struck me most about this documentary was just how similar it was to Brian’s Story. The same issue keeps coming up, underlying problems are not being dealt with. In this case the issue was drug addiction, in Brian’s Story it was mental health. One of the many homeless people the documentary follows is a 20-year-old called Luke. He’s addicted to the legal high Spice, a synthetic cannabis which can cause psychosis. No matter what help he’s given, being an addict prevents him from getting his life back on track. He needs support more than a roof over his head, in fact he needs both. Breaking the cycle of homelessness can’t be solved by just providing a bed to sleep in. By being addicted to drugs, any kind of progress Luke makes gets undone because the deep-rooted issue still persists.

“The more I understand about homelessness, the more I understand how difficult it is to break that cycle.” – Professor Green

Fascinating to me is how many homeless people are hidden from us, how many people are without a home, but that we never think about. Prior to my research, when I thought about homelessness, I had a very distinct image in my mind of people sleeping on the streets, people in alleys and shop doorways with cardboard and blankets. The problem is deeper than that, invisible to most.

“It’s not what I expected to see. I don’t think it is what many people would deem as being homeless. But we need to change our perception of that, cos there is a problem. And I guess the reason that we think of homeless as an old man on the street with a can of beer is because that is something that we have all grown up seeing, it’s something we all see day-to-day when we’re out on the streets. But there is a huge problem, clearly, with people that we don’t see. They are virtually invisible. The hidden homeless have many faces. From those like Lauren, teetering on the edge, to the rough sleepers facing the dangers of the streets every night.” – Professor Green

It’s Not Still Life, It’s Life

What better way to see what homelessness looks like than with an image? However, I have some mixed feelings with regards to photographing the homeless. I’m not sure why, but I get a sense of exploitation from photographs. I worry about the photographer exploiting someone at an awful time of their lives. I don’t get the same feelings when I watch a documentary, I think it’s an issue of consent for me. I feel like a random snap of a homeless person sleeping is somehow taking advantage of them, not to mention lazy. I guess with a documentary there is a dialogue and a message which is being conveyed by the homeless people themselves.

Shine Gonzalvez

This uneasy feeling subsides somewhat when I look at portraits of homeless people, I think they can convey so much emotion. I think Shine Gonzalvez says it best,

“The subject matter although difficult, is not meant to force the viewer into a sense of pity. Rather, I am trying to give the subjects the dignity that maybe society all too often denies them. If we all know that the clothes do not make a person then I truly wish that these photos, at least go some way to show that there but for the grace of God go all of us.

Look into their eyes and you may be surprised that in fact you are looking in the mirror.”

I guess I worry about the intentions of those photographing homeless people more than anything. Ethically it worries me.

So What Is Homelessness?

Homelessness is a complete failure on behalf of our societies and governments to take care of its most vulnerable citizens. Homeless people are often thought of as lazy for not solving their own problems, but what people fail to realize is that there’s often hidden problems which are preventing them from doing so. Mental health issues, drug addiction and circumstance all contribute to someone’s situation. Homelessness is simultaneously invisible and yet very apparent. Hidden away in hostels and spare bedrooms, or on display in shop doorways throughout our cities.

What Causes Homelessness?