The Homeless Library

Half Awake, The Homeless Library
Lawerence and his book, The Homeless Library
Poem on the poor, The Homeless Library

The Homeless Library is the first history of British homelessness, combining oral history interviews and, more subjectively, poetry and art. The Library is a collection of over 80 books handmade by homeless people, reflecting on their lives and how they connect with the wider, previously unwritten heritage of homelessness.

Many homeless people live and die as "invisibles" who are not valued or acknowledged. The project sought to redress that balance - and in doing so help rebuild the self-image of profoundly excluded and damaged people. Participants were invited to join workshops, supported by two homeless resource centres in Greater Manchester, The Booth Centre and The Wellspring. Arts organisation arthur+martha has a longstanding partnership with both of these venues, and has gradually established trust with the homeless community over 5 years.

The Homeless Library was launched at The Houses of Parliament and made its public debut at The Southbank, London. This exhibition was reviewed in The Lancet as a significant contribution to the welfare of homeless people: "The books and stories from The Homeless Library carry an impressive emotional and political weight."
(The Lancet)

Project management

The two-year Heritage Lottery Funded project was devised and directed by experimental arts and health organisation arthur+martha, which has a 15-year history of collaboration with marginalised people, especially people with dementia and homeless people, helping people find their creative voice and be heard.

Initial research included interviewing older people who witnessed homelessness back to the 1930s and discussion with homeless people and social historians about the form and ethics of this unwritten history. Next followed 18 months of life story interviews and creative workshops with contemporary homeless people. The final phase was promotion, exhibition, publication.

Participants were invited to join in at dementia drop-ins and the homeless centres mentioned above. Support workers and carers were present at all workshops, events etc. Continual reviews and feedback took place with participants and staff. Written consent was obtained for permission to publicly share material. All homeless interviewees had their words read back to them, and had the opportunity to edit their accounts. Participants numbers: 45 older people, 300 homeless and vulnerably housed people.

The exhibition of handmade books launched at the Houses of Parliament in May 2016, welcomed by Undersecretary of State Marcus Jones and Ann Coffey MP who listened to speeches by homeless participants: "This project is both a piece of history and an art piece. I don't think I've ever come across anything like it before. It's beautiful."
(Ann Coffey MP)

The exhibition then had its public debut at The Southbank in London, at which homeless people led a creative workshop, tutoring members of the public. These two exhibitions totalled 3 months, audience approx 20000. Social media audience includes 4000 viewings for the short documentary video, 10000 blog hits. A free ebook accompanying the exhibition contained interviews footnoted by social historians and health professionals, and contemporary homeless people.

Lois Blackburn and Philip Davenport, the Co-Directors of arthur+martha, contributed insights gained during The Homeless Library project to a Committee for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing in 2016.

Evaluation methods and findings

"Life changes in every way after a war. You are refugee. You become a flying bird with nowhere to go... With art I have a voice, now I can make things. Doing the art, giving me a chance to speak, you make me feel important. Going to the Houses of Parliament and speaking I felt very good. It's what I've got now, it's all I own." (Jack Q, participant)

The project was continually supported, monitored and reviewed by support workers and responded to feedback from participants. A detailed public diary of the project documented emotional currents of workshops on the blog.

The Lancet reviewer interviewed participants, staff and artists and discussing the project as a space for potential healing: "The homeless people who shared their stories experienced a safe place ... Once a safe space was established, the means of expressing frightening or painful emotions could be explored. Writing workshops fostered a sense of trust in other people and shared experience..."

Making The Homeless Library helped some people to lighten their load. Two participants attribute this project to no longer being homeless. Psychologist Polly Kaiser, who wrote footnotes for the ebook, observed that people can only change their lives using therapy if they have a safe place to do it. Homeless people by definition don't possess a safe place: many of their stories tell of damage with no chance to heal. The temporary place of safety this project offered was making art and poetry. The shared delight of the creative sessions was uplifting to witness.

"People enjoyed the sessions for many reasons. A big thing was that you created a safe space for people to be relaxed, have quality conversation. And you work on something with a purpose. A lot of projects are art for arts sake, but you felt like you were on a mission and people pick up on that and go with it if they agree with what you're trying to do. A sense of belonging was another aspect, you are both very accepting and yet also believe in people's ability and get them to stretch themselves..." (Amanda Croome, CEO Booth Centre)

To offer people a short time away from fear, from addiction, from intimidation was perhaps the most valuable gift that we had to bring. Self-expression is one of the deepest human needs, it defines identity, allows change and brings joy.

"It's put me back on the ladder to life."
(Danny Collins, participant)

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England