The activist museum fighting back against homelessness

The activist museum fighting back against homelessness

in partnership with Peace & Justice ProjectSeason of Hope
The Museum of Homelessness is using the stories of those often forgotten to reclaim their humanity and campaign for an end to homelessness.

At the tail end of October 2021, dozens of people gathered outside the BFI IMAX cinema in Waterloo. Each person waiting was wearing rainbow-coloured wristbands, though none had travelled to see Daniel Craig’s final turn as James Bond in No Time to Die.

The wide, glass cylinder of the UK’s largest cinema screen rises up out of London's old Bullring roundabout. In the mid-1980s and 1990s, long before the giant cinema was built, the roundabout was known as the Cardboard City, and lived in by around 200 people who slept in cardboard boxes. It was a crucial settlement for London’s homeless community, where in its heyday the orange glow from fires could be seen from hundreds of metres away as people huddled together to stay warm. There are reports that the settlement boasted its own nightclub in a packing case though far more importantly it formed a key hub for organising and mutual aid until it was eventually cleared and evicted in 1998. It was no coincidence then, that this was chosen as the site of The Secret Museum – an event and exhibition organised by the Museum of Homelessness (MoH), which had over 1,000 attendees for the 11 days it was open to the public in October 2021.

It was this museum that had drawn the crowd outside the BFI. They milled around among the vines of the sunken concourse, waiting for admission when all of a sudden, the sound of guitars and crashing cymbals drew their attention. MoH founders and husband-and-wife duo Jessica and Matt Turtle, along with other organisers rode towards them on bicycles, blasting The Levellers’ 1991 album Levelling The Land through portable speakers. “Some of our elders lived [in the Cardboard City] and we wanted to pay homage to that by getting people to assemble there,” explains Jessica. “The audience were given a UV pen and told them to find the flamingos, so they had to move around the city uncovering these clues as a group.”

The hunt eventually led the crowd to the Secret Museum’s location in the vaults under Waterloo Station, where the stories of people experiencing homelessness and doing grassroots organising during the pandemic were shared. Each artefact told a specific story – from a bubble wand used to spread joy during lockdown to the wristbands that they wore. “The rainbow sweatband [represented] someone’s experience of being a Polish migrant, seeing all of the homophobia emerging inPoland around [lockdown] but feeling helpless to do anything about it because they were locked down here,” she continues. “Wearing that became really important to the Museum, and then when the audience of 1,000 people came through wearing it in an act of solidarity for that person, that was really beautiful.”

Named Temporary Exhibition of the Year at the 2022 Museum and Heritage Awards, the Secret Museum is just one example of the creative ways the MoH has been telling the untold stories of homeless people and activists since its founding 10 years ago. In that time, they’ve built an extensive collection of objects and artefacts, created a catwalk fashion show with clothes crafted from rubbish found on London’s streets, and organised a film screening and performances at the Tate Liverpool from a group of Manchester squatters. They even produced an opera, Man on Bench Fairytale, which was created by and tells the story of artist David Tovey – an ex-serviceman experiencing homelessness, who fought through adversity and suicidal feelings after a chance encounter on a park bench.

By Daniela Sbrisny

It’s a potent way to create representation for a community whose belongings and stories are so often consigned to rubbish bins, or wiped clean from the public consciousness. “The Museum is a form of rebalancing power and representations around homelessness – we think about who gets to speak up for people in the history books,” explains Matt. “It’s important to tell different kinds of stories as well. Not every object or story you’ll fully engage with or even fully understand, but somebody might say something which really makes you think.

“Not all the stories are easy to hear,” he adds, “some are traumatic, and some are really joyful so they help you challenge your own assumptions as well.”

Now, Matt and Jessica are working towards the MoH’s first permanent museum located in Finsbury Park, North London, which is scheduled to welcome its first visitors in April next year. While the space is not yet open to the general public, they have quickly turned it into a hub for the homeless community. “We moved in on the Monday and started doing community work on the Tuesday,” Jess says, with a knowing laugh. They are currently hosting art workshops and gardening sessions, while also partnering with the People’s Recovery Project (PRP) – an organisation that aims to improve access to treatment and recovery for people who are experiencing homelessness and addiction.

Each week, the PRP holds weekly sessions for people preparing for treatment at the space, as well as generally providing a welcoming, alternative space for people to come and feel comfortable outside of the typical healthcare systems. “I actually came into contact with the Museum of Homelessness after an individual I had been working with took his own life and they supported me around that loss and processing that grief,” says Ed Addison, co-founder of the People’s Recovery Project. “I saw a different way of working in terms of a community approach, because previously I’d worked in larger, corporate homelessness organisations, and though they’re doing amazing work, there are limitations to that.

“I think MoH is absolutely astounding in terms of the impact that it has, as a collective memory and a response to the trauma people are suffering – it is a space for reflection,” he continues. “They’re essentially opening their doors to people who would otherwise have nowhere else to go.”

13 years ago, Mariusz P* was working as a chef at an upmarket Notting Hill restaurant. He had migrated from Poland, taking the job abroad to earn money to support his parents, wife and son at home, when he found out that his whole family had died in a car crash. Having previously been a user of drugs, the tragic situation compounded with losing his job after accidentally feeding someone an allergen saw him relapse. With no income and nowhere to go, he spent nine years sleeping rough on the streets, actively using heroin. After a deportation scare involving the Home Office, a chance encounter with Ed on the streets helped turn his trajectory around, who brought him into the PRP, and introduced him to Matt and Jess and the wider MoH community.

“When you are on the streets you forget about positivity, you’re surrounded by negative thoughts, you forget about everything in real life, [like] love, the good emotions, and [the MoH] show you that” Mariusz says. “When you go there, they treat you as a human being, and they try and support you with whatever it takes, and I’m so grateful for that because they helped me a lot.”

Now, Mariusz is in recovery having completed his rehab treatment, and is working part-time in a bar. He credits the community around the MoH, as well as the support that Ed, Matt and Jess showed him for helping him reach the situation he is in now. “It’s helping me to build my strength, courage and give hope,” he beams. “I love it, now I enjoy love. Believe me, if you’re in this building you feel the emotion, the vibes – it’s home sweet home.”

While forming a welcoming refuge for people like Mariusz, the permanent space is a huge milestone for the organisation – the idea for which originated a decade ago in 2013. “It came out of austerity really – the desire to take action and take change,” Matt explains. “I think it’s interesting, it came about at the same time as a lot of other grassroots groups likeStreets Kitchen, [LGBTQ+ shelter]The Outside Project, were being set up – I think there was this momentum towards everything we were seeing with an ongoing and unending social crisis.”

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Searing cuts were made to public services and particularly welfare benefits – often the last line of defence for people against homelessness. According to a 2019 London Assembly report, the number of rough sleepers more than doubled between 2009 and 2016, rising from less than 4,000 to over 8,000, while 650 people died on the streets of the UK’s capital between 2013 and 2018. Having previously had experiences of homelessness themselves, as well as of working in museums, Matt and Jessica increasingly felt that they needed to take a stand, so the MoH was formed.

Since then, their work has been taking on even more importance. Over the past decade the UK’s homelessness situation morphed into a full-blown crisis. Significant shortages of housing, the economic effects of a global pandemic, the freezing of housing benefits since 2020, and the rampant inflation of the past two years that has characterised the cost of living crisis has led to sharp rises of people experiencing homelessness. In March, the UK Government’s own figures found that record numbers of people in England – 104,510 households including 131,000 children – were living in hostels, hotels or similar temporary accommodation.

“It’s a scary, bleak situation,” says Matt. “I’ve had emails this week from people really at their wits end. There really are no options for people, particularly [for] those who have no recourse to public funds. I think the rule changes around having seven days to find accommodation if you’ve been given leave to remain for example are really pernicious and have such a bad impact.”

The ever-worsening direction has already led to the washing of politicians’ grubby hands – last month, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman announced a plan to ban tents being handed out to people experiencing homelessness, describing rough sleeping as a “lifestyle choice”. The policy, which has since been axed, was met with considerable backlash for the way it shifted blame onto people experiencing homelessness for their own situations. Soon after, a video began circulating on social media that showing workers for Camden Council destroying tents that were being used to shelter homeless people, which they later apologised for.

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“The tents are highly symbolically destructive acts by the people in power,” Matt says. “But through the way we work, which is connected to what’s happening on the streets and in other homelessness settings, [we have] the ability to collectivise and challenge power.”

Such apportioning of blame onto people experiencing homelessness, who are victims of a failing system, detracts from the failing welfare state and lack of housing – the true underlying causes of homelessness. The rhetoric also has serious real-world impacts on the people they target, as do the everyday systems built to dehumanise – from train tannoys to hostile architecture built to deter rough sleepers. “When I was begging in Liverpool Street station, every five to 10 minutes I would hear: ‘Be aware, you are surrounded by professional beggars,’” Mariusz recalls. “Things like that push you down – you lose your sense of life, you lose your sense of hope.”

It’s why having a space to go to and be around others who understand and can empathise with your situation, is so critical. Jess Harris, a Research Fellow from the Homelessness Research Programme at King’s College London explains that in their unit’s research, creating such spaces can have profoundly positive effects on helping people improve their situations. “Our research has heard from people with lived experience, and from professionals, about the ‘obstacle course’ of service barriers and stigmatising attitudes that people experiencing homelessness can face when in crisis or when they need health and social care support,” she says. “People experiencing homelessness have described how the presence of others with lived experience – as volunteers or staff – makes services or community spaces feel more approachable and less judgemental.

“The Museum of Homelessness is remarkable because it offers individuals facing profound social exclusion access to practical support and a positive lived experience community – both people and a physical space – in a setting that celebrates creativity and activism.”

On top of radical storytelling, the MoH’s direct action and organising that they engage in day-to-day is also a key tenet of their work. It takes a myriad of forms, which can be as simple as handing out hand warmers and essential supplies to rough sleepers, or funding hotel rooms for respite and storage for people in temporary accommodation. On a larger scale, it’s the wider campaigning and investigating to highlight injustices and influence policy.

“The MoH has a sharp campaigning edge to it, it’s not enough just to tell stories,” Jessica explains. “Everyone says that homeless people are invisible. That’s not totally true – our community’s the most heavily monitored population and everyone will be on about 10 different databases, cameras, everything. So we’re not interested in collecting data on our people, but we actually collect data on how services are doing, the structures people have to navigate – how are they doing?”

Last year, they undertook analysis to highlight how government language and social media disinformation has fuelled hate speech and xenophobia surrounding homelessness and migration – demonstrating how words used by politicians such as “invasion” has led to rises in violence against homeless people. They’ve also been heading up the Dying Homeless Project, a coalition which was started by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2017, which puts work in to understand in greater detail the situations and honour the stories of those who have died while experiencing homelessness, rather than consign them to a statistic.

Their most recent large-scale investigation – Severe Weather Emergency – was published in March earlier this year. The idea came the previous summer, when a long, brutal heatwave saw unprecedented temperatures, breaching 40 degrees Celsius for the first time since records began. With the climate crisis set to worsen in the coming decades, Matt and Jess began to wonder whether authorities had protocols in place for severe weather and whether homelessness systems were built to withstand the looming emergency. Matt fired off countless Freedom of Information Requests and spent hours hunched over a laptop pouring over spreadsheets.

“Matt was crunching the data on Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), so he was looking at Hot Weather SWEP and Rain SWEP because severe rains are becoming more common,” Jess says. “And basically there’s not enough provision in place.”

Since the investigation’s publication, the General London Assembly revised their Hot Weather SWEP protocol, which was activated in early September this year. Last week, Cold Weather SWEP has been activated in London and other parts of the UK, with local councils offering extra provisions for rough sleepers and people experiencing homelessness.

“I’m not sure if I actually consider myself an activist, but I’ve been influenced by the activism of the museum,” says Ed of the PRP. “And we sit with them in solidarity 100 per cent in terms of our fight, there’s such a huge importance to keep pressure on the government and the powers that be to make changes that are possible to create better environments for people.

“I think housing is the biggest singular issue, whether you’re living in inappropriate, overpriced accommodation with mould and your landlord isn't fixing your stuff, stability is secured by your housing situation,” he adds. “It’s so important for a functioning society.”

The MoH’s success in affecting policy, direct aid and powerful storytelling is a reminder of the power that radical action can have, particularly within a homelessness crisis that shows no sign of letting up. With temperatures dropping and a long winter lying ahead, Matt and Jessica are continuing to build out the permanent museum space, working out the finer details like where to place storage sheds and how many people they can feasibly cook for in their kitchen.

This Christmas, they will be hosting local homelessness community members at the new museum, with food and games. “We’ll do Christmas dinner for as many people as we can – we’ll have a day here, it’ll be really nice,” says Jessica. “Last year we collaborated with Streets Kitchen on Christmas Dinner for 100 at Islington Town Hall. That was amazing as well but this year is going to be more intimate, we definitely wanted to mark the day here with everyone who’s been so brilliant in the first few weeks of us being here.

“It’s been hard at times, obviously we’ve been going [for] nearly 10 years and this is the first time we’ve had our own space, so it’s a big change for us.” Festive fun aside though, the pair are clear that the MoH’s winter work is only really beginning by then. She adds: “I think it’s important to have solidarity and togetherness on Christmas Day, but I also think that the bleaker part of winter is January, February and March – the public spotlight tends to go on Christmas and by that point people’s moods are really low and it’s not so on the agenda. So we’ll definitely be thinking about everything we can do then.”

This article is part of the Season of Hope, a series run in partnership with the Peace & Justice Project.

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*Name shortened to maintain anonymity

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