these photos capture the magnitude of britain's homelessness epidemic
Photographer Jermaine Francis documents the tents which have become ubiquitous across the UK's urban landscapes, symbols of a system failing its most vulnerable citizens.
I didn’t enjoy making this project.
When I first moved to London I broke up with my girlfriend, and, for a period, I technically became homeless. I couldn’t get a room in shared accommodation and I ended up couch surfing. It was incredibly unsettling but it showed me that anyone can be in this situation. Recently I walked through Covent Garden and saw a woman of about 70 or 80. She was an archetype of a granny; grey perm, floral blouse, but she was getting into a cardboard box. A man was leaving her food from a nearby restaurant. Another day I walked past and just her legs were sticking out of the box. She was asleep with a straw hat on her head. She could have been my mum.
About a year ago, I began noticing tents popping up around the urban landscape. I already knew that homelessness had increased and increased everywhere, not just in London — but the tents cemented it. Research from Shelter has revealed that there are about 300,000 homeless people in the UK, an increase of 13,000 in the past year alone. This means that one in every 200 people in Britain are homeless. If you add in those who are unrecorded, or sleeping two and three to one tent, that number is even higher. It felt strange seeing so many homeless people living in tents here in Britain, we are the fifth largest economy in the world. This is a place that’s supposed to be able to help the most vulnerable in our society. I decided to document them.
The tents themselves became a metaphor for the problem of homelessness and how we deal with that problem, as individuals and as a society. You have this pop up tent, which you usually see only at festivals, which has now become an icon of homelessness. Some of the people living in these tents surround them with their own possessions; one man had a chest of drawers, another a chair. The structure of the tents allow these people to create their own psychological framework. It’s a way of creating stability in a space where there is no stability.
I felt morally conflicted about taking these photos and sharing them. I asked myself, “What is the purpose of this? Who benefits?” I questioned the reason behind doing this because I was so conflicted about the issue. I thought about Nigel Shafran’s series of photographs that tried to invert the power dynamic, by having homeless people photograph him. This helped me understand what needed to be considered when I was making the work.
Then I spoke to my mum about it. She’s worked in the public sector and the NHS for years. I remembered her visiting the worst estates in Sandwell in her job as a health visitor, and being scared for her going there on her own. I remember asking her why she had to do this. She replied that if she didn’t who would? That resonated with me, because it was the same thing with this project. If I don’t do it, if I don’t show it, who will?
The images are not just about homeless people, they’re about our relationship to homelessness. When you see a photograph of a homeless person in a sleeping bag, it’s something you’ve seen many times. You can become desensitised to it. But when you see a tent, it appears like it’s almost bolted to the architecture of the city, the urban environment. You can’t ignore that. It isn’t invisible to you. I started doing research around the issue and reading a lot about homelessness, because if we’re going to engage with it, we have to know about it. I read Less Than Human by David Livingstone Smith, which is a book about how we use language to dehumanise people, it moved me deeply.
“When we see [homeless people], it throws us back on our own privilege,” David told journalist Poppy Noor an the article in the Guardian. “Even if we’re not some fancy person living in some fancy flat in London, the fact is, we’re not on the street. And rather than be compassionate, we become judgmental, because compassion is a price that most of us aren’t willing to pay. When you judge that they are inferior, defective, that relieves us from the burden of guilt and the threat of compassion, because when you feel it, it means something needs to be done.”
It’s easy to think that only the Tories are to blame for homelessness. Of course the policies enacted by the Tory party have been a factor in huge rise of homelessness, but we all have a part to play in the situation. I worried that photographing the tents was dehumanising people, just turning them back into objects. But actually we are the ones who make homeless people into objects. We’re the ones who see them as something subhuman, but they’re not, they’re human.
Collectively we’ve demonised the homeless. We’ve said they’re addicts, slackers, losers, whatever. But research carried out by St Mungo’s and Crisis proves that the majority of homeless people are suffering from very real problems. Some have mental health issues, others have suffered abuse and there are many women who have escaped domestic violence. There are ex-soldiers, those released from jail and a lot of young people who have just come out of foster care. Some have fallen into the trap of losing a job and then found themselves without a safety net.
Then you have the huge cuts to mental health care, social housing and almost everything else that began in 2010. Combined with the introduction of Universal Credit, which has been hugely problematic for the welfare system, along with massive rent increases and the decimation of social housing, and we’re in a nightmarish situation. The charity sector – which is itself struggling – is operating on the front lines of this epidemic. It’s the perfect storm.
Regardless of what you think of the tents, they exist, and there needs to be a conversation. Whether my series is successful or not, hopefully it still acts as the catalyst for that conversation. The government has recently promised that they’re going to cut homelessness in half by 2025. Looking at the current cuts in welfare and social housing, I don’t see how that’s going to happen. What then happens to the most vulnerable people in society? The issue is not about the tents, and this project isn’t about them either. It’s about what the tents represent.
I struggled initially with the idea of shooting tents without people. But I wouldn’t go and shoot someone lying asleep in their bed as it’s a gross invasion of privacy. So why would I go and take a photo of someone asleep in their sleeping bag? By focusing on the tents I think I was able to preserve the identity of people living in them, while still opening a dialogue about the issue. I was trying to show that these people are human. They live in a space the same way we all inhabit a space. They’re inhabiting that space to survive.
This project isn’t just about homelessness itself, it’s about how we think about society and the most vulnerable people in it. Things need to change, both in terms of the system and of ourselves.
You can find out more about Britain’s homelessness crisis and donate to the charities helping to fight it by contacting Crisis at email@example.com, and St Mungo’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photography Jermaine Francis.
Text Jermaine Francis as told to Róisín Lanigan.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.