Tom Hall’s Footwork: Urban Outreach and Hidden Lives is a street-corner ethnography that looks at how urban modernisation, development and politics impact on the hidden lives of people living and working on the streets. From the rough sleeping homeless to street drinkers and sex workers, this book reveals the stories of the vulnerable and isolated – people living in the city that we often choose to ignore.
In these extracts, Hall introduces some of Cardiff’s homeless community: Gerald, Paul, Rose, Jackie, Wayne, Damian, Gemma and Carol, looking at how the politics of the urban landscape metes out injustices, limits the right to a home, impacts health and contrives relationships.
In directing attention to homeless individuals my aim has been to people this book, early on, with those whose lives and difficulties are at stake throughout, if only just a few of them. I feel they are owed some visibility. But I do not want any brief description of individual character and circumstance to be read as a satisfactory, or even part-way satisfactory, account of the problem. Understanding why some people are homeless is best begun somewhere else. It remains the case that homelessness is something that (only) happens to people, however; and that is worth remembering. I have also, at points, obscured things: I have anonymised some of those I am writing about, protecting identities and changing some details – of appearance, sequence of events, particulars. I have done so to afford some privacy to those whose lives are already uncomfortably public. I hope this does not seem inconsistent. I have tried for balance: some visibility, but not too much. Were this book about homelessness, or, rather, about homeless people, things would be different perhaps. Instead, the homeless are a little off to one side of what I am really about here. Their lived circumstances animate others in various ways, as I have suggested, and it is those others, care and outreach workers moving around the city looking out for people in need, that this book is about if it is about any collection of individuals at all. Accordingly, Charlie is Charlie, and Dennis is Dennis, because I know them well and have shared their work; and they know me. Visibility – who sees who and on what terms, who sees their (own) name in print – has to be managed.
Gerald sleeps (as I write) against the rear wall of the Glamorgan Building in Cardiff ’s civic centre. He may not be sleeping at all, may not have slept much all night, but he has made a place for himself there and has occupied it dependably for the last few months, wrapped in a sleeping bag with his minimal possessions arrayed around him. He doesn’t move much and doesn’t like to be disturbed; he can spend two or three days (and nights) in this same spot without seeming even to stand up. He must sleep some of the time.
The Glamorgan Building, once the county hall of Glamorgan, houses Cardiff University’s Schools of City and Regional Planning and Social Sciences; it is a large, neoclassical, listed (Grade 1) building. I work there, in an office on the first floor with a view out across the city, towards Cardiff Bay. Directly below my window a walkway runs along the side of the building and around a corner to a car park at the back. Here, squeezed between the tarmac apron and the rear wall of the building, under cover of a first-floor balcony and balustrade, are a couple of concrete benches and some bicycle racks; and this is where Gerald has established himself, where he was lying this morning as I passed him on my way into the building. It is a good spot, sheltered from the rain and mostly quiet.
Gerald is one of Cardiff ’s street homeless and looks the part rather more than some others do: elderly and dishevelled, stooped (when he stands) under the weight of a hopelessly overstuffed duffle bag. He has been on the streets for a number of years, off and on, and has slept all over the city, but seldom in any one place for long. Wherever he goes, he gets moved on. Given which, his occupancy of this little strip of space at the back of the Glamorgan Building is some sort of accomplishment. He has managed to stop somewhere and stay, for three months now, and has yet to be shooed away.
Even so, there is still a problem with him staying where he is – another sort of problem. His physical mobility is poor and failing, and likely to deteriorate all the more quickly the longer he spends cocooned in his sleeping bag. Some days he doesn’t get up at all and when he does he struggles, a consequence of which is that he has become more and more isolated and withdrawn. He will not make conversation beyond a word or two, sometimes refusing to speak at all, even to the local authority outreach workers who come out to see him most mornings – pretending to be asleep when it suits him, or quite possibly sleeping. He is unresponsive to any suggestion that he ought to get into a hostel. In what they would argue to be his best interests, those caring for Gerald, or trying to, have seen to it that his current sick note (confirming his frailty and validating his benefit entitlement) runs for only a month at a time. This means that Gerald has to get up and walk across the city centre to his see his GP every few weeks. Gerald would rather he didn’t have to go so often. He doesn’t like doctors, and doesn’t like the benefits people much either; he gets along well enough with Charlie, one of the outreach workers. It is Charlie who has made the arrangement with Gerald’s GP to keep his sick note temporary. She hopes to keep him walking that way, and looked over once a month.
The same team of welfare professionals that visits Gerald in the early mornings – Cardiff’s City Centre Team – calls on Paul too, when they can find him; he moves around a bit and every now and then disappears from Cardiff altogether. Paul is in his thirties and has, by his own account, not been settled anywhere very long since he left care in his late teens. He has family locally, he says, but doesn’t seem to be much in contact with them or able to stay there. He is almost always cheerful, but insistently so, to the point where it all seems like a bit of an act; there is a stubbornness too that keeps him from accepting offers of help or even acknowledging that he needs any. His longest stay in any one location in Cardiff was in the corner of a church car park off to the side of the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. His patch there – a square of tarmac beneath a flight of stairs at the back of the building – was characteristically domestic: a bed of wooden pallets with blankets and blue plastic sheeting laid across, or neatly rolled and stored alongside throughout the day; his other, minimal, belongings arrayed on the shelves of a discarded fridge, now a cupboard; two wheelie bins pulled in close as a windbreak when required. Everything just so.
The one time I have seen Paul angry and out of sorts was when his ‘room’ under the stairs was tidied away. He had returned late one night – later than usual, because there had been something on at the church and he hadn’t wanted to disturb anyone, or be disturbed – to find his bed gone, along with all his bedding, the fridge too (he found a bag of his personal belongings in one of the two wheelie bins). The following morning he was sitting on the wall by the entrance to the car park. He was fuming, and prepared to take the story to the local press if the church didn’t recompense him in some way; he was going nowhere till he’d seen the vicar. But it all came to nothing (no one turned up, he never went to the papers), and by that evening he had found himself another likely looking corner to bed down in, on the fringe of a stalled building site. The loss of his place by the church still rankled though, and for weeks he would rehearse the injustice to anyone who would listen: ‘And I always kept that place clean. Spotless. Not shat it up like others do. Litter in the bin, no mess. Common sense, isn’t it. Don’t shit on your own doorstep.’ But cheery now, like it was basically all OK.
Jackie and Wayne are lying down side by side under a blanket with their dog Bruno between them in the covered entrance to the Cardiff International Arena; it is half past two in the morning. Off to one side there are two more figures, curled up in sleeping bags. No one is asleep.
Jackie is seventeen, Wayne in his mid-twenties. They are both well-known on the homeless scene in Cardiff and have been sleeping out in this particular spot for a couple of weeks now. Wayne is a heavy drinker, Jackie is too when she is with him – they are a couple; Jackie has a black eye. The social workers and care professionals who have anything to do with her consider Jackie a priority, especially vulnerable and at risk of exploitation; it is not quite certain that Jackie is selling sex to keep Wayne and herself in drink (she says she isn’t), but she has been seen a few too many times in recent weeks in just the places where you would, at just the wrong times. Attempts over the past year to get her into accommodation have come unstuck as often as they have been attempted. Right now, she won’t go anywhere without Wayne (and has turned down offers of hostel places twice in the last month on those grounds).
Wayne is bulky, a big man and aggressive with it. He cuts an alarming figure around town, lurching along the pavement swearing at Bruno as the dog strains and growls on a short chain. There are not too many care professionals as worried for Wayne as they are for Jackie.
The two figures off to one side in sleeping bags are a mother and daughter, Carol and Gemma. Gemma has had nowhere to stay since her boyfriend was placed on remand. Her mum, Carol, is in a (homeless) hostel and cannot take visitors. So the two of them are out together, for tonight. ‘You need to see the City Centre Team in the morning,’ says Wayne. ‘They’ll be along about seven.’ Four more hours to wait.
Rose is walking away from a police car, having been told she will be arrested unless she goes home, right away. ‘And what would happen then? asks Charlie, reaching into her bag for a handful of condoms. ‘If I was arrested? It would depend on the copper,’ says Rose. She takes the condoms: ‘Thanks. Just the flavoured.’ Katy comes across to chat, pleased it has now stopped raining as she has nowhere else to go and will be out for the next few hours at least. She has provisionally booked a place at the EOS (the council’s ‘emergency-overnight-stay’ provision), but the doors don’t open until 11pm. Charlie would rather Katy had somewhere else to go and asks if she needs help finding a hostel place at least. Katy says no thanks, the EOS isn’t so bad, and anyway she might stay out all night, then sleep tomorrow.
Damian arrived in Cardiff homeless and stayed that way for two months, sleeping rough around the city in a dozen different spots, never more than half a mile from Cardiff Central station. He made two close friends early on, for better or worse: Phil and Chrissie. These two, old enough to be his parents, adopted him, after a fashion: they looked out for him, making sure no one took advantage or pushed him around; they introduced him to all the local homeless services. Then one day he left, or disappeared. Nothing was said. He got on a train, or got indoors somewhere (not a hostel, or word would have passed along), or something else happened. No one seemed to know or be prepared to say.
These are (or were) some of Cardiff ’s homeless and rough sleepers; one way or another they are ‘out’ and on the street at night. Not so very long ago they could have been expected to have had the city centre more or less to themselves after midnight, once the pubs had closed and people had made their way home. But at least two things have changed – have been changing – over recent years. Cardiff ’s night-time economy has swollen, as it has in a great many other UK cities. The city centre is now home to ‘a complex of themed bar-chains and clubs … [drawing] up to 70,000 people in a weekend evening’ […] Nor has this change come about only through unconscious, tacit agreement. Cardiff council’s strategy for the centre of the city, first published in 1997, identifies the creation of a 24-hour city as one of six development priorities.
Where does this leave rough sleepers? And how do they sleep? It leaves them with what is left of the old entanglement of homelessness and central space to be observed in towns and cities across the UK. Still there, but no longer because everyone else has gone home. Still there because they have nowhere else to go. And they sleep badly; they are rough sleepers.
Tom Hall is a lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, where he teaches sociology, urban theory and ethnography. He has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Cambridge and is the author of Better Times Than This, Youth Homelessness in Britain (Pluto, 2003).
Footwork: Urban Outreach and Hidden Lives is available from Pluto here.
All images are taken from the book.