After living on the streets of London for twenty years I’ve had my fair share of encounters with members of the public and their ignorance towards rough sleepers.
It used to be worse at Christmas period when members of the public would rush past me whilst I was living on the streets. They tried to separate themselves from my situation by looking on ahead without acknowledging me, especially those who were Christmas shopping with children, carrying bags of warm food, toys, presents and decorations when I had nothing – not even a roof over my head.
They refused to look at me and accept the horrible visual of me struggling in the cold with my dog. Not only did they pretend to be oblivious to the image of someone living on the streets, they again refused to realise that I am just a normal person. Of course there were the occasional generous passers-by who would offer me money and in doing so would feel good about themselves by helping someone in need. However, from my own experience I can tell you that nine out of ten homeless people feel ignored by passers-by. I can tell you that those rushing by rough sleepers don’t realise how much a simple acknowledgement of “good morning” or “good evening” can be.
A number of issues, including family troubles and difficulties with the law, led to my time on the streets and although I’m no longer sleeping rough, it’s something which is never too far from my mind.
I haven’t always been in the successful position I am now and I often find myself re-visiting the site where I was discovered by a local gallery owner. I want to remind myself that I could easily return to that situation if I was to lose my focus on creating works of art and turn to drug-use again. I was in a revolving door of homelessness and prison stays for eleven years. If I wasn’t sleeping rough and attempting to fund a £100 a day heroin addiction, I was in prison. I had acknowledged that my life was in a rut but could see no way to break the cycle.
After receiving my dog George from some friends who’d found accommodation off the streets, I knew I couldn’t return to prison as it would mean losing George after creating the strong bond we have. George gave my life purpose, making me break the isolation of my heroin addiction and motivated me to use my natural artistic talent to create my street art. Before I didn’t have anything to lose, it’s taken me three years to turn my life around and now I have everything to lose.
Sadly, those who have never experienced homelessness themselves don’t realise how fine a line between being fortunate and unfortunate. Often its not a choice and is something that is a real last resort.
Someone once told me that you’re never more than three pay checks away from becoming a rough sleeper and its something which has stuck with me for a really long time.
The fact is, those without a home are still human with problems affecting their daily lives – just like those who are in work and have a place to stay at night. The only difference for homeless people is their situation often means its harder to rise above these problems. People forget that you are still a person and still have feelings which can be hurt, especially when you’re treated as though you are invisible.
I decided to raise awareness about homelessness and address this issue of facelessness by working with StreetLink to create a giant mural for World Homeless Day 2015. Working with fingerprints – the most iconic marks of individual identity, I asked members of the public to fill in the shadows, details and features of the portrait which helped bring my artwork to life.
As an ex-homeless person myself, I’m aware that rough sleepers may remain hidden and unknown to the services who can help support them off the streets.
People are unaware of how to engage with those living on the streets and StreetLink is a service that allows members of the public to alert local outreach services about someone sleeping rough at the touch of a button. By downloading and using the StreetLink app, members the public can help make this connection- meaning help and support for rough sleepers is literally at your fingertips.
I feel like, through my art, I’ve been given a second chance in life which is why I want to help those who are still having to face living on the streets. I regularly volunteer with people in Shoreditch who are still struggling with addiction and homelessness in the hopes that I can inspire them to get back on track. Many think they can’t change their current situation – but I’m living proof that you can turn your life around. By using StreetLink those who are alone and struggling will receive help and get an opportunity to change their lives too.
Help and support for rough sleepers is literally at your fingertips. For more information please visit www.streetlink.org.uk call 0300 500 0914 or download the StreetLink App.