The Language of Homelessness

The way we talk about homeless people is set to be challenged as part of a special Storyhouse Languages festival taking place this month.

Social change organisation Same but Different will curate a panel discussion around the ‘language of homelessness’ during the four-day festival which takes over Storyhouse from January 23-26.

The organisation’s founder, photographer Ceri Hughes, says she is concerned one-size-fits-all terminology commonly used when we talk about the important and growing issue unhelpfully stereotypes people and homogenises what are individual experiences.

Ceri, who has spent the last 12 months photographing homeless people in Wales and Chester as part of a National Lottery Community Fund-backed project, explains: “When it comes to language, people use ‘homeless’ as a term to cover everybody.

“But really, they’re individuals and they’ve all got very different stories, very different reasons why they’ve become without a home. And they’ve got very different paths.

“You see so many stereotypes in the news about homeless problems with drugs and alcohol. But they don’t all have these problems. I think sometimes by using a title in terms of the word ‘homeless’ everyone makes this assumption – and I don’t think it’s very helpful.”

Same but Different is a not-for-profit organisation which uses the arts for positive social change.

It was originally founded to shine a light on rare diseases and conditions and counteract prejudice encountered by people who live with them. Ceri’s young son Isaac has Moebius Syndrome, a rare neurological condition that primarily affects facial muscles.

“As time goes by, we’ve broadened the remit to look at social change in a much bigger scale,” she explains. “One of the key things that runs through all the work we do is the sense of isolation. Families affected by rare disease and disability have very much a sense of isolation – and we find the same with so many different parts of the community.”

When it came to this latest project, she started by simply sitting down with people who are without a home and chatting to them, as well as taking their portraits – a selection of which will go on show in an exhibition at Storyhouse, titled Living on the Edge, to coincide with the festival.

The photographs will also be displayed on the Same but Different website

“The most surprising thing to me was just how many routes there are to homelessness,” Ceri says. “And what really hit home was the fact it could be any one of us, and how easy it would be. We’re all so close to being that person on the street.

“And also, how devastatingly lonely it must be.

“One of the people we spoke to was a lad called Harry. He’s very young and he’s homeless, and he spoke about the fact that what he really wants isn’t necessarily money – although that helps – but just for people to acknowledge him and recognise he’s there.”

She adds: “Since doing this project I go out of my way now to say hello and chat to people.”

The panel discussion, which takes place in the Garret Theatre on January 25, will bring together people from a broad spectrum of positions including those who have themselves experienced homelessness.

Ceri explains: “It’s very much – what can be done? How can we highlight the issues on an individual basis as well as in a wider context?”

And if the current language used is unhelpful, what should we be saying instead?

“I’m hoping that through the discussion panel we might come up with something different,” she admits.

“The whole purpose of the project is to get people talking about individuals and their issues, and what has led them to be homeless or without a home.

“So the aim around this is to encourage people from all different experiences and backgrounds to come together to see what can be done.”

Storyhouse Languages is a celebration of Chester’s diverse speaking cultures and welcomes the city’s international community to Hunter Street for a busy programme of events that as well as exploring the language around taboo subjects will also celebrate the rich range of different languages spoken here including Korean, Hungarian, German, Japanese, Chinese and Welsh.

Along with the Language of Homelessness panel discussion and a discussion on the ‘language of ageism’ there will also be workshops, performances, an open mic storytelling night, quiz and food market.