Art from the homeless


Written by Kieron Monks
23 Tuesday 23rd September 2008
A home is not just a physical space, it provides roots, identity, a sense of belonging and a place of emotional well-being - Crisis
It is estimated there are 350,000 people sleeping rough in the UK, with almost 20 percent based in London. Homeless in the Capital, an exhibition at the Museum of London, aims to humanise the people that have slipped through the cracks. Using the contributions of around 100 participants from The Connection at St.Martins centre (CSTM), the collection features a wide range of art as well as a touching display of the participants' most treasured possessions, from hats to radios. Paintings, poems and diaries give colour and humanity to the display, as homeless people reflect on their situation.
Thomas Scott with his hat
It is fascinating to view the survivalist approach to life on the streets, with tips on how to maximize your resources; everything from an oyster card to a battery can be a ticket to happiness. One of the artists, Thomas Scott, talks about a hat he has worn for 25 years and another, Bill Ingram, gives advice on how to look after your possessions while asleep. Despite the warmth in evidence, there remains a tragic undertone. One man ended up on the streets after fleeing Bolivia, where his family was murdered by gangsters. The diaries reflect an acute awareness of how the general public perceive them. "They look at me like I'm shit," says Richard Nott in his diary, which is displayed at the exhibition.
Paul Boston admiring his work
I spoke to project co-coordinator Dawn Ogunbiyi, who has worked at CSTM for almost six years.  
DP: What is the main aim of CSTM?  
DO: To get people off the streets and into employment. The main issue is housing. People can't stay in hostels forever.  
DP: How much success are you having?  
DO: An awful lot actually. Getting people into housing is a daily occurrence. Today we've done that for four or five already. When people are looking for jobs we give them training and on the day we suit them up and arrange transport. People get out of here regularly.  
DP: How do you see modern attitudes to the homeless?  
DO: They are one of the main reasons for the exhibition. We need to change the perception that these people are all lazy or substance abusers. This is an attempt to show individual personalities, to break down negative stereotypes. There is no standard reason for people being in this situation. Their circumstances are all different. After a certain amount of time on the streets, about eight weeks, you become entrenched and have a real, psychological problem where you will need help to get out of it. People don't realise that. Eric Brown's radio
DP: Was it difficult to get people to contribute?  
DO: Not at all. It was a little slow at first. When we advertised we got 10 volunteers. But then they recruited and we got 18 interviews, 40 diaries, people on websites, education packs. It became an empowering experience. From people telling me: "I have nothing to say, no-one wants to listen to me," we ended up with all these powerful works. More than 100 people contributed.  
DP: Has participation in the project helped anyone off the street?
DO: Yes we were losing people. Once they had the confidence to do this, people became far more employable. Celeste Braithwaite is now working with the Almeida theatre. Others have houses. I cant think of anyone this has not been rewarding for.  
DP: What can authorities do to realise the European Parliament's pledge of 'no homelessness by 2015'?  
DO: We work with what we have. I can't tell you what the government needs to do. Some hostels are great, others don't really work. Obviously the biggest problem is a lack of housing, which needs to be addressed. That target is not at all realistic.
art babes
I also spoke to Annette Day, curator at the Museum of London.
DP: How long has this been in the making?  
AD: About 18 months. Planning, collating, designing - its been a lot of work but also a unique challenge.  
DP: What has the public reaction been to the exhibition?  
AD: Extremely positive. We have a board for people to write comments on and we generally get people saying it made them think and question their own attitudes. I think homeless people in London are very visible, but we have a way of making them invisible and that needs to stop.  
DP: Do you have plans to develop the exhibition?  
AD: We will certainly archive some of the paintings and artifacts. Who knows what we'll end up doing with them. I don't view this as a one off. Ideally we will have a long standing partnership with The CSTM.  
The exhibition runs until 22 Feb at the Museum of London and is free. 

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