October 25, 2023
Last year we partnered with the Orwell Foundation to offer the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness. With the inaugural prize being awarded back in June to Freya Marshall Payne and Daniel Lavelle, both of whom wrote about their own experiences of homelessness, we are pleased to share a selection of entries by people with personal experience of homelessness or about personal stories of homelessness over the coming weeks.
By Robert Jones
In 1984, Audre Lorde wrote The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Lorde was a civil rights activist primarily concerned with issues of race, gender, class and intersectionality. In her address, she commented on how harmful systems can be recreated and perpetuated if we do not enable the people who are affected by these systems to challenge them, speak up about what needs to change and shape a better alternative.
In recent times, shifting cultural attitudes have led to a greater awareness of and willingness to combat social injustices and inequality. However ignorance, prejudice, stigma and judgement are still rife in many areas of life and representation can be non-existent or tokenistic. These are very real problems affecting the lives of people experiencing homelessness today.
The current system of homeless support disempowers the individual living through the experience by valuing the voice of service providers, key workers and other professionals over that of the person experiencing homelessness. I can personally attest to how damaging this short sighted and inflexible approach can be.
Co-production is one potential alternative approach, where professionals and people with lived experience come together to work towards system change. From my experience of participating in Brighton and Hove Common Ambition, I feel that this approach shows promise. Co-production gives people with lived experience the voice to challenge and shape the systems which have dictated their lives. I have felt valued, accepted, understood and respected when sharing my own thoughts and experiences, which is not something I experienced elsewhere on my journey through homelessness. My voice, and that of my peers, has produced valuable resources such as a university medical module. Although still in its infancy, my personal experience of co-production is that it is a mutually beneficial, rewarding and fulfilling way of working.
The power to challenge misconceptions, as well as to speak up against the injustices found within the system, often does not exist for people experiencing homelessness. You are reliant on that system to provide the basic tools of your survival. When the roof over your head and the food in your belly depends on the whims of an unjust system, you do not have the privilege of critiquing that system without running the risk of being seen as uncooperative and having support withdrawn. You do as you are told if your survival depends on it.
Those outside of the system are often blind to the realities of homelessness. The general public can have strong negative views and misconceptions of homelessness that make disclosure risky or even dangerous. Violence against people experiencing homelessness is quite common, as are encounters with people looking for Instagram clout.
The general public also tend to think of homelessness only as rough sleeping. If you tell people you are homeless, you often have to explain that you’re not rough sleeping and educate them on painful, personal things. At best, sympathetic people can find common place experiences of temporary accommodation shocking.
People’s civil liberties are often impinged upon and human rights breaches are prevalent. Experiences of housing plans not followed, corrupt welfare officers, and accommodation which is poor, inadequate or even dangerous are everywhere. These experiences are so frequent that those who work within the system can become dismissive and blasé about even the most horrific stories. Perhaps this is a natural coping mechanism when working with so many people you are unable to truly help, but it is an attitude that is incredibly harmful to the people facing these challenges.
All of this is to say that for those of us who have lived experience of homelessness, there are few places where you can openly discuss your life in a safe, understanding and non-judgmental way.
By offering safe spaces where people feel valued and understood, those who have experienced the trauma of injustice, prejudice and oppression, can begin to recover from those experiences and talk openly about the realities of their lives. It is only through this open conversation that we can begin to challenge misconceptions and harmful attitudes and find a new and less damaging approach to dealing with a problem like homelessness that can feel insurmountable. By listening to the voice of lived experience, people can begin to understand what facing the housing crisis and homelessness is really like and what can be done differently to support people.
There are also practical benefits to listening to the voice of lived experience. When your life and survival is entwined within a system, you learn how it works organically. You develop an intimate understanding of the ins and outs that only comes with life experience. If you are building a house, you might have an architect and a bricklayer, but you don’t expect the architect to start laying bricks. Building a house is a collaborative effort and we respect that different areas of knowledge must come together to most efficiently arrive at the desired result. When working to change or improve a system that affects the lives of real people, you must understand how the current system affects those who have lived with it.
Experience tells you how to work effectively and efficiently, teaches you what challenges tend to come up and how to best mitigate them. Whether the desired result is a well-built house or bringing an end to homelessness, it shouldn’t change the approach. We should apply the same respect to the knowledge that comes from living with something as we do deliberately learned skills and academic knowledge.
This knowledge has tangible potential applications: for example, we worked with Arch Healthcare (a local specialist homeless GP surgery), Justlife (a local homeless charity) and Brighton University to map the journey through the homelessness system from the perspective of a single adult with recourse to public funds. The voice of lived experience can be used to produce important resources that can be used for system improvement. The desire to use negative experience to produce positive change can be a powerful incentive. If you just listen, you’ll find people often have something very valuable to say.
With all of these considerations taken into account, it should be clear that by allowing space for lived experience voice, we can work towards a new type of system, where those who are supported and engaged with the system collaborate with those who work within it. A system that is built upon mutual respect and understanding. To the cynic in me and no doubt many others, it sounds idealistic, but if improvement is a common goal, in the best interest of all involved, we must all do our best to play our part in the change and listening to and raising the voice of lived experience is an important part of that process.
By working collaboratively, listening to each other and respecting each other’s unique life experience and perspectives, we can begin to lift each other up and find the best in people. It is both a moral and practical imperative that we make space to hear the voices of people who are often disempowered by the systems meant to support them.
The current homelessness support system is unquestionably broken, inefficient and failing people at every hurdle. A better system must be found. As Lorde reminds us, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, so if we are to build a new house, we must find new, different tools from somewhere else. The people best placed to understand where change needs to happen and what that change can look like, are the people who have been there themselves. Lifting the voice of lived experience is therefore in the best interest of anyone who is invested in ending homelessness or more broadly in reducing human suffering and supporting humanitarianism.