Project with USL and local homeless people
Hollywood Homeless is a music and photography project made possible by the Employable Communities Fund. For the photography side of the project, members of the Fab Collective have worked with and mentored project participants. A selection of photographs taken by the homeless participants were exhibited at St Luke’s (the ‘bombed out church’) from 6th to 13th March. If you missed the exhibition you can still see the photos on Flickr.
Here are some reflections on the project by members of the Fab Collective. You can also see our photos of the homeless photographers at work in the Hollywood Homeless gallery.
The first time I met Lizzi she was on crutches. She’d broken her foot a few days earlier but hadn’t gone to the hospital until it became so painful she couldn’t walk. She propelled herself up Hardman Street without complaint telling the others not to take her picture. But every time I looked around she was stopped, propped against some surface, posing for a shot.
I’d met Neil the day before. He also had a broken foot, but no crutches. “Didn’t you get crutches Neil?” I asked. “I did. But some guy offered to buy them off me on Mathew Street the other night for a fiver. So I sold ‘em” “You sold your crutches for a fiver?” “Well, no cos ‘e only gave me three quid.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but they all burst into howls of laughter, so I did too.
“We’ve got nothing but we’re happy” Michelle said as we walked along Hope Street. At the Cathedral steps she used me as bait to tap a smoke off a smart young man. “Can you spare a ciggie mate?” she asked and before he could walk by “We’re working on a photography project. Go on Jen, tell him what what we’re doing.” And I smiled. And he slowed. And I started to explain. And all the while her eyes never left the pouch of rolling tobacco he held in his hand. He offered it up and we three chatted on as she took out just enough tobacco for a single roll-up. At a natural break in the conversation she asked for a light. Once lit, she thanked him, as did I, and he went on his way. He was smiling. And so was I.
George is a slightly-built, weathered street drinker who told me he’d drunk in every public park in the country. The day we met he said that the people he meets on the street are bastards. I assumed he meant other street drinkers but he said no, ordinary people on the street are bastards. A few days later he set off down Wood Street with Alan and I in tow. He stopped briefly, rocking on his heels, and said “This project is called Hollywood Homeless, right? Well I’m Hollywood Homeless. I wrote the book. This is my life. I’ll show you what its really like on the street” With that he handed me his favourite camera and for the next hour or so had us document a day in his life. He wanted to show us the world through his eyes. By the end Alan and I were both in tears.
These are people who I would ordinarily never meet. Yet with my hand on my heart I’ve had the best time in their company. Certainly its been a rollercoaster. Their lives are very chaotic and sometimes dangerously so. But they’re funny and warm. They have a real sense of community and look out for one another. They have little, yet share it willingly. They’re brave and resilient. They’re creative and inspiring.
As part of this project they’ve taken images and written and recorded statements about their lives. They’ve also been learning to play music together. Through these means they are offering something of themselves to you. I hope, like me, you’ll make the time to stop and look and to listen and reflect.
Jen Allanson. You can watch a short video of the afternoon Jen and Alan spent documenting George’s experiences, Looking for change, on YouTube.
I’ve worked in London a lot and have seen people sleeping in shop doorways in the Strand with nothing more than a cardboard box for cover. But Liverpool? A homeless problem? Seriously? I guess they were always here – they are just sort of ‘invisible’. They blend in. They wear what you and I wear and tend not to look overtly needy.
From the moment when the Fab Collective coalesced into existence early in 2009, I hoped that there would be some sort of social dimension to our activities. If we were to be something more than a camera club, we needed an agenda which took photography out to the young or the disadvantaged.
Some of the Collective were already actively involved in portraying the lives of Liverpool’s homeless people and highlighting their plight. So when Urban Strawberry Lunch asked the Collective to work with them on a photographic project with some of the homeless folk who congregate at St Luke’s, getting involved was a no-brainer.
I found working on the project to be hugely rewarding. It obliged me to re-think all of my preconceptions and suspend my annoying inclination to judge people. It was refreshing to just accept people and their many and varied problems without feeling a burden of responsibility to try and change things. All we were being asked to do was to hang with these ladies and gentlemen and help them to take some decent photographs.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. It never is. Human nature being what it is, we tend to want to right injustice; to challenge prejudice and to raise low self-esteem. It just feels like the right thing to do. Especially when you get an insight into an amazing community where everything is shared and where the bonds of solidarity are as strong as steel. Perhaps when you have got nothing, it is a lot easier to share everything – but I have observed qualities that I thought that the ‘rat-race’ had killed off. OK – these folk are not all angels and society seems geared up to make ‘the wrong choice’ the easier option for them. But isn’t it a cruel paradox that society could actually learn a lot from these ladies and gentlemen? If only we would listen and observe more.
I was beginning to think that my job as a father was almost done. My two daughters are making their way in the world as socially responsible, upright members of society. Recently, unprompted by me, they have both started to follow my example and buy The Big Issue regularly. I call that a small step in the right direction. But lets none of us rest until there is no homeless problem in Liverpool. Lets not rest until there is no Big Issue anymore.
Ladies and gentlemen of the streets of Liverpool, it has been an honour and a privilege to spend time with you. You have taught me so much. You have inspired me and humbled me. Thank you. Really.
You know these people, they’re the ones to avoid eye contact with as you walk down Bold Street. The ones to slip a few pence to rather than get into a conversation with. The ones to dismiss.
Whilst I like to think I didn’t bring too many preconceptions about the project to the table, the ones I did bring were to be challenged hard. More than any group of people I’ve met for a long time, I came across the sort of camaraderie that only comes from a shared experience.
Being constantly surprised by many of the group, their creativity, their intelligence, their sensitivity, came as a revelation. We had our problems of course, we got kicked out of The Black-E because one of the group was abusive to a member of staff, sometimes people didn’t turn up, and two of our number got taken on a virtual roller-coaster ride through Liverpool with an alcoholic in the driving seat. These times were in a minority though, and I often came away feeling like I was being mentored, not the other way around.
You know these people, they’re the ones to go for a coffee with on Bold Street. The ones to help out when you can. The ones to learn from.
You know these people.
The homeless. Stop, take a second and think what that phrase mean to you, it might suggest images of Big Issue sellers, people sleeping rough or begging for money on the street or it could be young families living with their parents. It depends on where you’ve been and what you’ve seen.
We like to put people in categories. In a complex world it makes it easier to have them in a place that makes sense to us. Homeless, scally, social Worker, scouser, gypsy, student, elderly, all useful labels to place around a group. How many times have you heard it? How many times have you done it yourself? Once we’ve boxed them off it also allows us to have a unified view, a single opinion, where certainty exists. It can make it easy to use the negative characteristics exhibited by some in a group to denegrate or generalise about all in that group and gives some people the justification to dislike, hate or just ignore. Others may carry false ideals, it helps us and society cope with the hard stuff, reality.
Now for me I see a phrase that sits uncomfortably. I prefer the term ‘homeless people’, it better reflects my better understanding based on my own personal experience. It reflects the fact that each and every one of the people I have met in recent months is first and foremost a person rather than a member of an anonymous group with as much variety as society itself. I’ve seen bad and I’ve seen good and it’s that fact that makes it so important not to generalise. I’ve seen some people that cannot be trusted, others that have a past that is not to be proud of, with little excuse. I’ve seen weakness and selfishness and a lack of self regard. On the other hand I’ve also seen courage, pain, bravery, comradeship, selfnessness and humour. I’ve seen low self-confidence, despair, lack of self-esteem, lack of trust and lives that I know I could not have coped with. Sometimes I’ve just seen people who are quiet, thoughtful, harmless and just need a break in life.
All sorts of factors take people there. Some, especially alcohol and drugs, just make sure people stay there, like a hole that once you fall down, the sides are too slippery to climb out of and just pulls people back in. Some people get a helping hand out, others show enough determination to get out themselves, a few were never too far away from the edge and some are maybe too deep and too far gone to ever get out.
I’ve met people who can see a better life, for some it’s one they’ve had before, for others it’s one they’ve never had. There are many out there working to help but I do get the impression that as some people are being helped and managing to get out a whole host more people are heading into the same hole. Society will always try to prevent it but people just keep slipping on through.
As regards what we can do, well, be aware, each one reach one and beware the path that could take you there yourself because it is so easy to slip, whatever age.
And one final thing, to everyone I’ve the pleasure to meet in the last few months, too numerous to mention, thank you. I’ll be seeing you around, especially as for some, I walk through your living room every day.