“X was sleeping rough last night, came in here soaking and shivering. You can’t solve all of people’s life problems but you can give them a chance for just being. Just sitting and being. That’s what I saw him do today in the workshop, he was writing a poem, but also sitting quietly with his thoughts. Looking around a little, listening. Being a person.”
(Karen, project worker at The Booth Centre)
The homeless resource centre “The Booth”, is a little outside the middle of the city, tucked down a backstreet amongst car parks, small businesses, a Thai takeaway, a couple of brothels. I’m on a bike and look carefully to dodge the broken glass on the ground, I’ve had too many punctures here already. I arrive in a rainy downpour, soaked to my shoes.
But if the approach is grungy, the centre itself is an oasis. In the middle of concrete and coldness, you come into human warmth. A large cafe takes up the ground floor, it’s noisy, welcoming, edgy all at once. There is a scatter of people eating breakfast at the tables, many have rucksacks stacked up beside them and waterproofs drying, draped over the chairs. Many have faces that are marked by life outside, life lived hard. It’s quieter than usual, though still a bustle. I ask around to see if who’s interested in taking part in the art and poetry workshop and then go upstairs to prepare the art space.
At first the room is quiet, we’ve only got one participant. He sits down dejectedly and complains, “So where is everybody?” Lois and I look at each other, baffled. Usually the group is much bigger — it could be a difficult morning. We start to talk about his poems, he them writes continually, obsessively, trying to pin his demons to the page. His latest notebook is bulging with new work, he’s been up writing since 2am this morning. Still nobody else has arrived. Then magically more people have appeared. And more. We make a start, continuing the ever-growing art and writing.
We are working on a new section of the book called the Hours of the Virgin, which is a detailed look at the emotional and spiritual highs and lows each part of the day, from before dawn through to the last moments of wakefulness. In the medieval illuminated manuscripts that have inspired this project, each part of the day has its own significance and symbolism. The beginning full of possibilities, the confrontation with mortality at noon, which corresponds to the time of the crucifixion, the Vespers call for blessing of loved ones at nightfall, and then Compline, going into sleep.
Two people wrote about their days, the wrestling match with their past, the desire for sleep that never comes. As their words are read out, the room stills. There’s a quiet ripple of appreciation, and perhaps of understanding.
Still more people come, the busyness and quietness sometimes becoming an excited roar, and then dying away to the shared silence of making. The colours on the pages of this book glow, the patterns and images are complex, jagged, gentle. It’s difficult to describe the complexity and speed of a day in the Booth Centre — suddenly we’re at an end, when we feel it’s still the middle. Slowly everyone emerges from the shared dream.
We have a recap with Karen, the Booth Centre project worker who helps our afternoon sessions:
“What I liked was that people I wouldn’t have expected to come arrived and stayed — and enjoyed it. What you’re getting in this session is people who never join anything, ever. It is brilliant to see them getting involved, and it has a knock-on effect on how they engage with other services here and start rebuilding their lives, letting in the positive.”
We don’t always see these “knock-on effects” of what we do, so it’s good to hear this from Karen. But the abiding image I have in my head is of that room slowly filling with people, arriving in ones and twos, despite the weather, despite the everything else they deal with — brought together by the deep human need to make a trace of themselves, through art.
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.