Thousands of Hidden Homeless Live in Cars in Brighton – Interview with the Creators of Invisible Voices

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As a part of Brighton Fringe festival, ‘Invisible Voices’ project will provide guests with photography exhibitions, book and poetry presentation, music and stories to raise awareness about the homeless people struggles and also their success stories. The book, ‘Invisible Voices’, and all the expositions will be at The Cascade Coffee Shop, 24 Baker Street, on the 7, 14, 21, 28 May with free entrance from 13:00.
We had the opportunity to meet Nils and Cair, who told us more about this important initiative that gave a huge help brining to light stories that are too much often ignored and ‘invisible’.

So, how did the project start?
Nils: ‘We were what we call a “Facebook community group”, just a bunch of people from Brighton and Hove, who shared some political leanings, and at one point some of us decided “we should do something, not just share newspaper posts and memes.”’

It’s so strange because Brighton is quite a small city, someone wouldn’t expect that. In places like London, you almost find it’common’, but here…
N: ‘About 40% of them are not from Brighton. But Brighton has quite good facilities’

C: ‘So people come from other places as well.’

N: ‘Sometimes London councils will send them to Brighton, to reduce the numbers there. We were saying that if we are going to do something for the community that is relevant, we might want to tackle the homelessness issue. We were aware there were a lot of groups doing a lot of things, and not knowing anything about it, the last thing you need to do is go and interfere…’

C: ‘…and add up more backpacks and sleeping bags, or play saviours.’

N: ’So we thought…what if we connect the stories? The reason for the name Invisible Voices is that we do see homeless people on the street but we often don’t see them as people. We see them as something to be avoided, something to look away from. So we thought, what if we connect stories and give them a human face, let them tell their stories rather than stories told by certain tabloids suggesting they are all scroungers who choose to having that life. So that was the initial idea, to collect stories and put them together in a book form, and then basically what followed…’

C: ‘…. was a journey of discovery and exploration in which we discovered a lot about homeless people in
Brighton. And then when we thought about how to present this book, someone in the group suggested why not try to become part of Brighton Fringe, because it would be fitting as well to recognize that even someone without a house is still a member of this community, and they should have their place in Brighton’s big cultural festival.’
Homeless in Brighton; one of the many ‘invisible’ members of our community, ignored or frowned upon, a social and anonymous inconvenience…then again a human being with a story to tell.
N: ‘We had two weeks left for the registration and that really set things in motion. We started in January, and we thought about delaying it a year, because we would have moments in which we would be really pressed for time, but then we decided to push ahead with the project anyway.’

C: ‘We were lucky, one of the community said “Oh you know, I run a café, came down, it’s all for recovery” (Cascade Creative Recovery). So we went down there, and I think that everything just fell into place, people came over to us, they wanted to tell us their stories, how they come off the streets, their stories of recovery’

N: ‘We were referred to lots of different groups, like the New Note Orchestra, which is an orchestra, the only one in the UK, especially for people in recovery. We got in touch with First Base, which is a day centre not far from here. And they liked the initiative, but they said “Don’t just focus on streets stories, focus on people who got out, focus on the success stories”. So the man who took this photograph, he has got photographs on show in the exposition as well, he was homeless himself last year. It goes to show you can get off the street, you can get out of a bad situation. Possibly with a little help, and there are lots of organisations which do offer that help. One of the shocking things we discovered is that First Base alone helps about 1200 people a year off the streets. So if those organisations were not allowed to do their work, what you see now is nothing, there would be thousands of people sleeping in the streets’

C: ‘The Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) prevents  homelessness as well, they are moving people in emergency accommodation like B&B, hostels…It’s meant to be temporary and at least it is better than a shop doorway, but often those temporary situations last far too long because of the housing shortage.’

The Invisible Voices Brighton Fringe event can be visited every Saturday in May between 13:00 and 18:00 (free entry) at the Cascade Coffee Shop on Baker Street.

N: ‘There is an extreme shortage of council homes in Brighton. So, sometimes you run into people who have lived there for years. There are also homeless hostels which are owned by private companies, but I’ve seen the rooms and they look absolutely terrible, they’re in very bad condition, and the companies sometimes charge the Council 200 pounds a week for every resident. So one of these places with 70 rooms is making fortune off homeless people. You run into very sad stories, like a young woman who was about to give birth to a baby, and she was helped off the streets, which is better than being on the streets, but then they sent her to a homeless hostel which was filled with drunks, drug addicts, needles in the corridors, etcetera. This brings us to the
whole housing crisis in Britain, part of which is caused by rising rents, and I think that in Brighton right now 3 or 4 out of every ten houses sold are sold to people from London, who only use them in the weekends. That means that young people from Brighton can’t afford a house. So there’s lot of reasons why people become homeless, one of the biggest reasons right now are rising rents.

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C: ‘We ran into a case of that, didn’t we?’

N: ‘We ran into a case of someone paying 900 a month, could barely even afford that, and then it went up by 15%. After she was evicted the landlord pushed the rent up further to  1600 per month. A lot of people simply can’t afford rents, and there are a lot of working homeless  now. You won’t see them on the streets, because
they are ashamed, they work, they have a job and don’t want their boss to find out they’re homeless…’

C: ‘They sleep in their cars, go up to First Base, have a shower, have breakfast in the morning, and then they go to work’

 N: ‘There are thousands of hidden homeless who live in cars, in garages, in sheds, in caravans… We don’t know how many, but we know that there are 23.000 people waiting for council houses in Brighton, and about 500 a year are available.  And then you get people who maybe break up with their partner, they get depressed, they lose their job…and suddenly they’re on the street whereas a year before they had a house, a family, a work.’
C: ‘They come from all over the country, and the organisations are supposed to send them back but admit that this is difficult, because if you have a woman fleeing domestic violence, she doesn’t want to be in the town, or anywhere near the husband or boyfriend who abused her.’
N: ‘You also get a lot of cases of people who were working and then their relationship breaks up, and they don’t
want to stay in their hometown, where friends and family could see them begging in the streets. But a lot of the people you see on the streets who are there all the time, they don’t want to be helped. They are offered the help, but they don’t want it..’

C: ‘People make it comfortable for them, they’ll give them some change, they’ll give them food and basically sustain life on the streets…and addictions. There are projects which do really good work, handing out  sleeping bags and essentials, of course it’s better to give out sleeping bags than to let someone die…but these outreach teams also try to talk the recipients in accepting more help to fight addictions and get back on their feet. So they are experts there and know what they are doing.’

N: ‘A lot of people die..In the last three years 50 people have died sleeping in the streets in Brighton and Hove. I think it’s been five or six this year.’

C: ‘Five, I think. For example, two people died just opposite there, at Waitrose’

N: ‘I know that in one of the privately owned homeless hostels…I know they have had roughly one suicide a month since the New Year. But that’s kept quiet. They have mental health issues, they are trying to recover, and they’re put in an environment…’

C: ‘There’s no support in those places’

And what is the Council doing?

N: ‘The Council does what it can, but it’s hampered by rules and regulations..’

C: ‘And cuts’

N: ‘And when they count the homeless, they will only count the people who have official council recognition as being homeless. So the council counts 90 rough sleepers. Outreach teams count those with connections to Brighton, and they say 300 to 400. But there are more, because they don’t count those from out of town. As the government austerity cuts and other new regulations start to bite, the problem is going to increase drastically. The Fringe event and book seek to make people more aware. The event includes a photography exhibition and book and poetry presentations. And then we have musicians popping in and out, playing their songs and talking about their recovery. The main message we want to pass on to the public is that homeless people are human beings with a story to tell, they could easily be friends or family. The problem is going to get much worse, but people can get out of it, provided the institutions offering assistance aren’t shut down by cuts.’

When you pass by people living on the street you always ask yourself ‘Should I give them some money, maybe some food…’

N: ‘It gets to a point where if you give them a sandwich they might sell the sandwich’

C: ‘I think this is really what we’re trying to drive home in the book, putting money into the charity is what really helps them off the street, is better going there than just giving money to people on the streets.’

N: ‘We visited a food bank. Most of the families that came there, were working. They had jobs, their jobs paid for the rent and most of the bills, but it was not enough for other basic essentials such as food.’

C: ‘It has been a long journey, full of learning. We didn’t expect to learn this much’

N: ‘There are a lot of people who are doing a lot. But they are very busy, the guy who works at the food bank we visited works 18 hours a day, he’s busy and he doesn’t want to be famous or to be a hero, he just thinks that people should be helped. The Church is doing a lot too; we visited St Peter’s and St Luke’s and they do what they can, offering meals, places to sleep, human contact and advice.  That human contact especially is important, reminds rough sleepers that they are humans, and not just a social inconvenience.’

Invisible Voices of Brighton and Hove Facebook Page

Cascade Creative Recovery

Brighton Food Bank

BHT First Base Day Centre

Text and featured image by Elisa Bardoni

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