Documentary photography project about homelessness

Documentary photography project highlighting the growing issue of homelessness

In October the homeless charity, Stonepillow, allowed me access to their facilities to see the work they do and meet the people they support, their clients. This is the beginning of a year long documentary photography project about homelessness, the varying causes of homelessness and how, with some help, people get themselves out of it.

I’ve always thought ‘homeless charity’ is an odd descriptor in as much as it suggests the charity itself is homeless but in Stonepillow’s case it vastly underplays the work they do.

I’ve discovered that addressing the issues of homelessness is much more complex than I imagined and Stonepillow provides a range of services that include guiding people into rehab, providing advice and support to navigate the inevitable bureaucracy that accompanies homelessness, managing hostels to get people off the streets, managing recovery centres for those on the path to abstinence and sobriety, and on-going support to ensure that when someone does get into permanent accommodation they don’t lose it. It is a mammoth undertaking that serves 100+ people every day across Bognor and Chichester.

After spending just a few hours with Stonepillow’s clients I quickly learned that no two people were the same. Of course, a number of people were in their situation because of an addiction, either to drugs, alcohol or gambling. Many suffered from mental health conditions caused by some form of trauma that included the death of loved ones, redundancy, divorce, and abuse. Serious illness was another contributing factor that also highlighted a recurrent theme – the burden of proof – where the individual has to constantly prove something to one agency or another, who will often use language that is open to interpretation, creating confusion and frustration on a regular basis.

Many of the clients have low self-esteem. Some are beaten, mugged or abused on the streets, yet all are incredibly grateful to Stonepillow and the wonderful people who work there.

I don’t why but for some reason I was surprised by how many young people work for the charity. I’m sure that I did not have the maturity at 22 years of age to offer genuine support to people in these situations and yet the charity is full of young people doing just that.

I’ve worked with highly paid leaders of multinational corporates who have described feeling ‘under pressure’ because they have to deliver a presentation; imagine how it feels when someone is looking to you to find them a warm bed for the night? I know which one sounds like real pressure to me.

On several occasions, I visited one of Stonepillow’s Hubs, which is essentially a day centre where the homeless can come in, use the shower, wash their clothes, have a meal, get their hair cut, use the computer and seek advice. On one particular day a number of people were ‘drying out’, nothing to do with alcohol, they had simply been out all night in the torrential rain and wind. All of their possessions including sleeping bags and clothes were soaked. It would be fair to say that the usual optimistic tone was missing that day only to be followed by a callous statement from the Home Secretary who declared that living on the streets was a ‘lifestyle choice’. She had clearly never visited a facility like the Stonepillow Hub.

There are only two things that unite homeless people, the first is their homelessness which is a situation, not a characteristic. The second is their optimism and generosity, which is a personality trait. I recall one person, a former addict, who said that if he won the lottery he would buy himself a little flat and give the rest of the winnings to charity because he didn’t need to go on expensive holidays. There are volunteers who work in Stonepillow’s shops who were once on the street and are now showing their appreciation by giving back, one person travels an hour and changes buses twice just to volunteer. For people that don’t have very much I have witnessed so much sharing and collaboration as they try to help each other climb out of the situation they are in.

To donate to Stonepillow click here.

Making a documentary photography project about homelessness

To understand more about how I approach documentary projects, particularly those of a sensitive nature, read my book, Making Documentary Photography, which you can read more about here.