Time for Change in 2018 (5 minute read)
In 2017, Bob Blackman MP spearheaded the passing of the April 2017 Homelessness Reduction Bill. In promoting the bill he labelled homelessness an absolute disgrace. It’s a typical refrain, the kind we are used to hearing from the big players. Casual uses of extreme language – ‘disgraceful’, ‘sickening’, ‘eradicate’ – to spread a caring message contains an inherent contradiction that it is scarcely picked up on. We hear these kinds of words a lot and it’s an approach that pretty much defines how homelessness is thought about, discussed and presented. It’s a model that runs far back into history. Pull any report or press clipping out of our collection and archive and you’ll find homelessness being discussed in immensely problematic ways. We are in agreement that homelessness can be – and generally is – an immensely traumatic experience and the levels of homelessness we are seeing in 2018 are unnacceptable. However, the language and imagery used to discuss, explore and campaign around homelessness often serves to reinforce stigmatisation whilst appearing to attempt the opposite. We need to think more carefully about what we do and say if real change is to happen.
This was an issue that the late Jimmy Carlson OBE felt passionately about. Jimmy was never one to mince his words and was acutely sensitive to the pervasive stigma that affects the lives of so many people affected by homelessness. MoH is indebted to Jimmy, whose sad passing exactly a year ago to this day is a timely moment to reflect on what we are pushing for – change. And it is not just campaigners like Jimmy who know this; it is backed up by world leading research. The work of pioneering social neuroscientist Dr. Lasana Harris has extensively researched how some members of society perceive other members of society as less than human. We are delighted to be working with Dr Harris in 2018, watch this space.
In 2017, the passing of the Homelessness Reduction Act and vague government promises to build more social housing seemed to indicate possible future changes of policy. In practice, the continuing assault on public services makes any substantive changes unlikely. If there is going to be any change there needs to be sustained commitment and real action. This, in essence, is what the Museum of Homelessness is for. Museums are, by nature, in it for the long term and this museum will be a vehicle for change for as long as necessary.
In the very near future, we are delighted to be presenting the pioneering work of Anthony Luvera and Gerald McLaverty at Tate Liverpool. In 2017, working together, Luvera and McLaverty wrote to 61 councils with 11 questions. Informed by Mclaverty’s experience of homelessness, the questions illustrate rough sleepers’ struggle to meet their most basic needs. The installation, titled Frequently Asked Questions lifts the lid on the twists, turns and bureaucratic dead ends faced by Britain’s most vulnerable people.
Councils were given new powers and responsibilities last year by the Homelessness Reduction Act. But as the tragedy of Grenfell Tower and the continued negligence since demonstrates, significant change is needed. The responses shown in this artwork offer a State of the Nation perspective on how councils are doing in supporting homeless people at a time when they have new legal duties to meet.
Yet behind the inevitable policy discussions and (valid) arguments for greater resources lies another important topic – societal attitudes. Destructive and problematising language is coming out of the mouth of politicians but it doesn’t stop there. It’s endemic throughout society. Recent evidence on this is quite revealing. For example despite the growing homelessness we have seen in the last seven years in the UK and the social changes that have arisen since the financial crisis of 2008, social stigma and negative attitudes in relation homelessness continue to predominate. A 2013 YouGov poll demonstrated that a majority tends to implicate people experiencing homelessness in their own situation with 35% indicating a belief that most homeless people have ‘probably made bad choices in life that have got them into their situation’. A 2015 Salvation Army/Ipsos Mori poll highlighted that almost a third of people (27%) felt that alcohol or drug dependency was to the single biggest contributor to homelessness.
We will be addressing this also in our State of the Nation programme at Tate Liverpool. In his raw and pioneering work, A Soldier’s Story, social artist David Tovey has sourced five stories that show how ex-servicemen suffer due to negligent social attitudes. At a time when the UK is reflecting on the loss of so many lives in World War One, the Soldiers bring us back to the present with some difficult questions. We will present David Tovey’s Soldiers alongside Frequently Asked Questions at Tate Liverpool between 22-28 January.
As you might expect, history is something we pay close attention to here at MoH. It needs to be confronted head on. Towards the end of 2017, another organisation began to make a lot of noise about the casual usage of the crisis narrative – Crisis. This important report, Find A Better Frame, is a challenge to the sector to use better, more efficient and sensitive words and imagery in what is a sensitive debate. We welcome this; the endless recycling of labels, stereotypical images and predictable narratives is an obvious issue that should have been sorted out years ago. This is why we anonymise our object donors and do not use images of people experiencing homelessness in our work. The focus on the individual has gone on for too long, when structural inequalities and systemic corruption are what should be exposed.
Writing a follow-up blog to Find a Better Frame Matthew Downie offers a very useful summary of the report and highlights how Crisis and its third sector partners will be making communication tools going forward to help us all be better communicators. But one area that is all too often forgotten about is history, something that the Crisis report has hasn’t addressed in great detail. We would urge Crisis to think about this more. In his blog and in the report, the idea of fatalism is discussed. There is the faint scent of exasperation, for example in the assertion that the public don’t seem to understand that homelessness can be ended. Yet the report makes little consideration of the fact that continued failure, over generations, to ‘end homelessness’ combined with sustained campaigns using the kind of language we outline above might be the reason why the public feel that way.
Jimmy Carlson OBE believed passionately in the power of learning from history. He also believed that we all need to take responsibility for the things we do and say, the change we can make as individuals and collectively. He believed that people experiencing homelessness have a lot to offer and should be thought about as fellow citizens, colleagues and friends. Not clients; not service users; not ‘a disgrace’; not something to be ashamed of or to eradicate. These beliefs of Jimmy’s were why he was drawn to the Museum of Homelessness and working in this spirit is something that we are proud to continue.
We hope you join us at State of the Nation at Tate Liverpool between 22 and 28 January.
Matt and Jess Turtle