Imaging Homelessness in a City of Care (Newcastle upon Tyne)
Northumbria University Department of Social Sciences and Languages, supported by Newcastle City Council
LARIA Research Impact Award 2015: Most Engaging Presentation of Local Area Research
Despite growing demand for evidence-based policy, this project offers insights into the role and importance of emotion in the development of local strategy and its capacity to influence prevailing conceptions and realities. The project – having a powerful emotional impact on audience members – (re)humanised local discussions about homelessness.
In the context of increases in non-statutory homelessness and rough sleeping, as well as austerity and welfare reform, the spaces and places of homelessness are an increasingly visible object of public and policy concern. Traditionally, the spatial governance of homelessness has been largely punitive; a consequence of the prevailing conception of homelessness as ‘individual failing’. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, however, this conception has been challenged, with the management of homelessness characterised by high levels of inter-agency coordination and joined-up working, such that local area research points to Newcastle, increasingly, as a ‘city of care’.
The project – led by Northumbria University and supported by Newcastle City Council, five homelessness charities and 30 homeless people – sought to:
- Further local understanding about routes into homelessness and the emotional and embodied experiences of homelessness; and
- Give voice to a population – still largely marginalised from mainstream decision-making – keen to engage in further improvements to provision.
The research process comprised ‘life history’ interviews, a lo-fi participant-led mapping exercise and a related auto-photography (participant-led photography) activity. Individual accounts were then brought together in a composite map by the artist Lovely JoJo. The outputs were showcased via a touring exhibition and project blog (https://esrcimaginghomelessness.wordpress.com), launched in November 2014.
Following recent increases in non-statutory homelessness and rough sleeping, the spaces and places of homelessness are a matter of increasing public and policy concern. Imagined as dangerous and ‘other’, they are frequently marginalised – spatially and discursively – in everyday life. Despite this, the spaces and places of homelessness permeate all aspects of our towns and cities – both seen and unseen. By combining life history interviews, lo-fi participant-led mapping and auto-photography, this project sought to shine a light on these spaces and places – bringing them to public consciousness in ways more powerful than traditional methodologies and dissemination channels generally allow – and in turn, further developing local understandings of the causes of homelessness and the lived experience of homelessness, with a subsequent impact on policy and practice.
Central to the project was effective partnership working and citizen-user involvement. Northumbria University has a long history of collaborative research with the local authority and homelessness organisations, but this is oriented mainly around the empirical and therefore neglects the subjective nature of the homeless experience. As such, partners (Newcastle City Council, Changing Lives, Home Group, Crisis, Byker Bridge and the Youth Independence Forum) were highly supportive of the participatory approach and instrumental in recruiting participants. Six workshops were held with homeless client groups (rough sleepers, young people and supported accommodation users), who annotated maps of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and provided reflections on the spaces and places significant to their life-courses. Using disposable cameras, they then took photographs to accompany their maps. The participants had full control over the intimacy of their disclosures. The participant maps were later shared with Lovely JoJo, who produced the composite map.
The project culminated in a touring exhibition and project blog. The exhibition commenced with an opening event at Newcastle Central Library, attended by over 60 local policymakers, practitioners and academics. The exhibition then toured around five hostels and day centres, various public spaces (including local cafes and Durham Cathedral) and two homelessness conferences; thus making the work widely accessible to homeless people, stakeholders and the public. To date, the blog has received over 4,000 hits, from over 40 countries, and prompted enquiries from officials of DECC, as well as homelessness charities from across the UK and overseas. The project has also received widespread media interest, inspiring a two-part feature on homelessness on BBC regional (TV) news and articles on the international news platform BuzzFeed, as well as Bloomberg Businessweek, the Big Issue and Inside Housing. The potential audience reach of media coverage was over 2.5M.
The project’s bespoke and innovative presentation of data proved highly engaging and had a powerful emotional impact on the audience. Typical reflections were:
- ‘I found the maps of the participants and Lovely JoJo deeply affecting. I find myself returning to them and reconsidering the places I thought I knew. With gratitude for your insights and honesty’
- ‘It makes you think…I have been so lucky to have a stable home. It shows what a wonderful job you are doing…Without you, so many people would fall by the wayside’.
What should LARIA members learn from this award entry?
Firstly, this project offers a series of insights into the power of emotion to challenge and influence prevailing conceptions and realities. While the emotional and subjective is frequently suppressed in discussions of policy and practice, its capacity to shape public discourse remains potent.
Secondly, while in some ways well documented, this project offers a further practical example of the ways in which innovative arts-based methodologies can function independently as, as well complement other, evidence gathering approaches. Indeed, we believe there is particular merit in their capacity to forge counter-narratives, which in turn function as a challenge to more mainstream, empirically-based analyses.
Third, and different to prevailing forms of local area research, we believe arts-based and other creative methodologies leave open a potential for capacity building – both for individual participants and the organisations implicated in these typically highly collaborative initiatives.
Fourth, in a context of considerable scrutiny over local finances and spending practices, we believe projects such as this – either in their own right or in the context of more interdisciplinary approaches – offer an important stimulus to public understanding and in turn, more informed and sophisticated public debate. They also support crucial local imperatives, such as transparency, legitimacy and accountability.
Photo Credit: ‘Newcastle by Night’ by 96tommy