Creative Homelessness | A Study

Introduction

Johannes Lenhard is a University of Cambridge PhD candidate who is part of the Home[Not]Less Ingenuity project.

In this article he reflects briefly on his background in the anthropology of homelessness and how his interest in the creativity of people on the street both fed his engagement with the project and more general questions of ownership and anti-homeless architecture.


I came across a man sitting in a phone booth on the Eastern side of the Canal St Martin in Paris one night in late 2015. He was sitting on duvets and pillows, on cardboard with his sleeping bag cuddled into a mountain of softness. It was already dark outside and he was reading a book, holding a torch in his hand as he slowly turned the page as I walked by. I don’t think he left his little booth that night.

I conducted two years of fieldwork in Paris as part of my anthropology PhD. I worked with people on the street in Paris’ North, mainly around the city’s main train station, Gare du Nord. Everyday I would accompany people on their daily routines between begging outside the station, scoring drugs in the quarter, visiting day centres, soup kitchens, drinking, thinking and waiting. During the fieldwork I encountered many men and women – often very intimately, over long periods of time, as we became friends – like with the one above making his living on the street. What struck me was their creativity, how people found and made shelters, by how they survived during the night using the infrastructure of the city.

The phone booth was one of the more elaborate means in which I saw people create shelter. Mostly those sleeping on the streets hide in alcoves, house entrances, on back yards or construct a shelter on the pavement, they find covered corners, parking lots, parked trains, church entrances or park huts to sleep in. Bins, cardboard boxes, wooden palettes and plastic bags are used as the bottom layer to build sleeping berths. The shelter has to be secure to start with; and hidden enough not to be disturbed constantly by people passing by while still easy to reach from the centre of town.

Constantly pushed around by the police and private security as well as feuds with each other, there are fluid movements from one place to the next always in search of an acceptable place to spend the night.

Throughout my study in Paris and already before during three years of studying homelessness in London I was aware of the creativity implicit in rough sleeping. Without trying to romanticise the life of a person living in such situations, it was the way people would turn the everyday suffering on its head, how some make a good, or even sometimes better life on the street. There is no denying that this kind of life is first and foremost difficult, full of hardship and poverty, a daily struggle often connected to various issues of mental and physical health as well as addiction. But I observed how people don’t let go. They think about their future and about how to make life better. It were these aspects of homelessness, these moments of making life more acceptable, liveable and even enjoyable that I was tracing.


When I got to know about the Platform-7 phone booth intervention and learnt there was interest in using the red phone box in London’s Holborn neighbourhood to explore homelessness, I was immediately interested. How could the phone booth in central London be used to make passers-by aware of the creativity that homeless people need to employ on a daily basis? How can we all think constructively about the creativity homeless people deploy daily to survive without showing a biased version of a very complicated situation?

I am interested in working with artists on this project, something I have not done before. My first concern is the medium. Several academic researchers of homelessness have used photography in their work. However, many approach this medium by using a beautiful black and white aesthetic that makes it complicated for any sense of suffering to shine through or, on the contrary, only portray the latter. How to strike a balance? A kind of documentary photography might be possible. Different, less explicit media might be another way forward. How can we portray the creativity of homeless people in a phone booth through sculpture or painting? What approaches of visual and material culture would work in a situation like this?

Beyond the engagement with an artistic approach, this project has for me an applied component, which is often completely bracketed out in my purely academic work. Putting ideas out there in a tangible form – text or pictures – in front of the people concerned makes me vulnerable. Leaving the ivory tower behind is something I like doing, but haven’t done outside of the secure forms of journalism and writing. At the same time, it opens up possibilities: interaction – and also friction – with passers-by as well as artists and other people involved in the project creates potential for new ideas. This is something I am excited about as the project unfolds.

There are two further things that interest me in particular, given the already existing network of people making use of the phone box: concepts of ownership and usage as well as architecture. Who owns the phone box,this beast in between public and private space? Placed in the public sphere but officially in the hands of many entities – BT, Camden council, now Platform-7 – its daily usage is marked by other hands and feet again. People put sex cards in the box, they hide cardboard in there during the day and – judging by the smell – also often confuse it enough with a public toilet. Whose claims are legitimate? Making this much more fuzzy, than a simple question of legal right and wrong, can be constructive and allows us to think through more complicated networks of usage. Who uses the box at what time of the day? How do the different claims communicate with each other – people peeing also taking sex cards, people hiding cardboard also peeing, people installing art also looking at sex cards – and how do the overlap and coexist?

A related question is that of architecture and more specifically anti-homeless architecture. How are homeless people prevented from accessing certain parts of both the public and private sphere? Fences and barriers, doors and metal bars, spikes and grills are the most straightforward and visible ways, yet are there more subtle instances of anti-homeless architecture? Competing claims of ownership might be one way into this question. Whose claim – to the phone box or to other parts of the public space – is stronger? How are these claims made and sustained over time – locks might be one answer with regards to the booth; a more sensual one that of the smell (of urine). How do homeless people ultimately overcome these barriers, again with their creativity?

Overall, I see the environment of this phone box as an experimental focal point full of potentially magical encounters between interventions from our side – be they artistic or academic – and reactions from the public. I am interested in engaging with the different types of people who use the box, have used it already before the start of the project, and in working through some ideas of what might be called creative homelessness.

Click here to see a selection of Johannes’ photos of homeless shelters from continental Europe

Johannes Lenhard ©2016 Platform-7 Event

Other articles relating to this artwork
Artist Statement

Vulnerability discussing Vulnerability

Revealing Vulnerability

Revealing Unseen Complexities

Shape of Innovation

Negotiating the Space

Creative Home: Human Ingenuity in Times of Upheaval

Londonist Out Loud (podcast)

Home[Not]Less Ingenuity Facebook page

Johannes Lenhard, University of Cambridge

Research Title: How do people who beg in Paris cope?

Supervisor: Professor James Laidlaw

Email: jfl37@cam.ac.uk

Download as vCard

Biography:

After a BA in Economics at Zeppelin University in Germany, Johannes switched to Sociology with an MSc at LSE with a focus on observing markets, money and exchanges. During his time at Cambridge (first during an MPhil, now during the PhD), his interest in homelessness and poverty has further grown.

Research Interests

Homelessness, Alternative economics, poverty, home-making and space, desires and dreams, drugs and mental illnesses