In April 2018, with a very heavy heart, I worked my final day at the homelessness organisation I’d been with for six years. Along with the proliferation of tedious admin tasks that come with the end of employment, I’d purposefully saved one very special job until last, and, being the sentimentalist that I am, was determined to relish it.
I carefully emptied the contents of my cupboard, hungrily sifting through ream upon ream of words, organising and filing the symphony of voices that lived in the pages before me: sweeping autobiographies meticulously typed in elaborate fonts, poetry and lyrics feverously scribbled on bits of torn-up Rizla, pamphlets and timetables artfully defaced with jokes, anecdotes and searing confessions, half-finished sentences in languages I could not read. I scanned the names and narratives and remembered. Remembered the classrooms, waiting rooms, prayer rooms, dining rooms and corridors where we found the space to talk, to write, to listen. I felt ashamed about the ones I could not recall.
I’d kept almost everything, for the most part in the hope that amidst the tumult of their lives the authors would be reunited with their words, that they would finish telling their stories. Often, they did; some were shiny, perfect artefacts. They had been published, performed, applauded, heard. Others waited patiently, my cupboard a temporary home, for completion. Sometimes there were new stories to tell when the old ones had lost their meaning. Things changed, so we’d start again. Too many were lost: silenced by heroin, liquor, the cold; pasts of which words dare not speak. Voices suspended in time.
Not all my students were rough-sleepers, but too many had experienced the horror of living on the streets, their numbers rapidly increasing since I began my work in 2012. The issue of homelessness is perhaps more visible now than ever before; vulnerable bodies huddled under damp sleeping bags, scraps of disintegrating cardboard offering meagre protection from the bone-penetrating cold of the concrete beneath, both devastatingly common features of our urban landscapes.
These are the citizens of nowhere. Economically and socially deprived humans spat out of the corpus of our towns and cities by slashed state budgets, hostile attitudes and defensive architecture. So-called ‘anti homeless’ spikes, the Camden bench, water sprinklers and pivoted bus shelter seats are the weapons of the ‘mallification’ of our urban spaces, architectural triumphs which betray the indelible stain of socio-spatial engineering. ‘Inferior’ bodies, unable to participate in the consumer economy, are physically excluded from the heart of our commercial and social centres. Their visceral presence a threat to our conscience, a reminder not only of our grotesque consumerism, but of the fragility of our own existence.
Leafing through the pages of my students’ lives, I was reminded anew that it isn’t merely our reluctance to truly see that is the problem, but more importantly, our failure to hear. The tactics of socio-spatial cleansing may not be successful in removing the spectacle of destitution from our streets, but it succeeds in sending out a clear message: when we do address the intolerability of homelessness in the UK, it is overwhelmingly through the prism of how it affects our own lives, the way we interact with our environment. The cost and impact of ‘anti-social behaviour’, the effect of rough sleeping on small businesses, the unsanitariness of defecation in public spaces: the paranoid fear of the ‘other’. We have created an underclass who are denied any ownership of public spaces, other than as a ‘blight’ or a ‘problem’ to be solved. In consistently refusing to know the person beyond the label, the statistic, the stereotype, we are systematically denying their experiences, histories, voices: that which makes us human.
Towards the bottom of the very last box I stopped at a piece of writing. It formed part of a collection written for a 2016 project, which culminated in an alternative public tour of the city, written and performed by our students. The words struck me once again. Not because they were well-written, which they were. Not because they belied an experience more dramatic, more triumphal than any other. The words revealed a voice, an echo of a young man, displaced and lonely. Muted. He was writing to his mother, yearning for his past but, just like everyone else in my cupboard, searching.
He described a journey, fraught with danger and fear, where at every corner hostile structures threatened to swallow him up, derail him, prevent him from his aim. But he kept on. As I reread his words and reimagined his story, his voice became louder, stronger and more certain, traversing the city streets. He was heard; the city called back to him, its beating heart magnetically enveloping him into it. In the mahogany embrace of Liverpool Central Library, he sang songs of possibility. Through the power of words, and in this place of belonging, he found a future and a home – as a citizen of everywhere.
Catherine Tully is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Liverpool, where she is writing on the abolition of capital punishment in Great Britain. She has also taught creative writing with community organisations in Liverpool.