Guest blog by Ryan Leder
29th March 2021
“So basically, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, all the homeless people in Wellingborough have had to be put into accommodation. Which means, for the first time, we know where they all are and we can contact them.”
This is the situation as it was explained to me in May 2020. It’s being explained by Made With Many Programme Director Helen Willmott over the phone whilst I’m sat in my parent’s garden. It’s a sunny day and so I’ve been sat on the grass wondering when my family and I will go for our one-permitted daily walk.
“What we’d really like to do is capture their stories in some sort of creative response. Maybe some poetry, maybe a short story. What it’ll be in the end is up to you”.
A lot of thoughts go through my mind.
The first is what “you must stay at home” meant for the 280,000 people experiencing homelessness – something I have to admit, hadn’t occurred to me in the 2 months of lockdown so far.
The second thought is that, if lockdown did end in the coming weeks (something it was possible to believe in May 2020), would these people just be put back onto the streets?
The answer? We didn’t know. As such, this project – if it was going to happen – would have to be executed in a matter of weeks, to ensure we spoke to each and every homeless person we could while we could contact them.
Jump to today in March 2021, and we now know that in reality the project took several months to complete. We know that – for now – many rough sleepers are still in sheltered accommodation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We also know that far fewer homeless people will agree to speak with me than first thought, and we know that my conversation will be extended to the staff and volunteers at Support Northamptonshire as well, about what they see and hear on a daily basis in supporting the homeless population of Wellingborough.
We know that whilst these conversations were held over phone and Zoom and Google Meets, they were extremely intimate and revealing on the part of the participants. While it’s not possible for me to describe my work on this project as “enjoyable”, I felt privileged with every moment of their lives they shared with me and proud that I was being given the opportunity to help tell these stories.
We didn’t know what form the work would take, and now that it’s written, that’s still true. It isn’t journalism, nor is it poetry or prose, but rather an amalgamation of different forms of text. Text that is trying to capture something I could never understand without experiencing myself.
Ultimately, the main thing we still don’t know is what the end of lockdown means for those experiencing homelessness.
Before this project, when I saw somebody experiencing homelessness, I used to ask myself whether it was right or wrong to give them money, or food, or ask them what they wanted and buy it for them. I used to wonder if they were in these circumstances because of their own mistakes in life, or they had been let down by structures outside of their control. In the end, I still ask myself these questions – but not because there is one ultimate answer, but because each and every homeless person is a human being of the exact same complexity and circumstance as we all are.
My main takeaway from this project is that the homeless population of Wellingborough and the world are, have been, and always will be people. As much as you or I or our family and friends. That may seem obvious, but sometimes I think we forget to treat them as such. One thing I believe we can all do to aid the ending of homelessness is acknowledge it. Acknowledge the people sitting outside our shopping centres and sleeping under our church entrances, because no matter the circumstance, these people have experienced something incomprehensibly terrible, and the last thing they deserve is to be forgotten as well.
I am privileged to have been commissioned by Made With Many for this project, in partnership with Support Northamptonshire. ‘You Must Stay At Home’ has now been made available online along with a limited run of hard copies. The book includes illustrations by Mark Reeve and is written by myself in response to interviews with members of the homeless population local to Wellingborough in 2020.
Below are links to just a few of the several wonderful charities working nationally to end homelessness. If you’d like to support the cause, these would be the best place to start.
Read more about You Must Stay At Home