Newcastle Arts Centre, 29th January - 26th February, 2022
Preview 29th January 1pm - 3pm All Welcome
In response to the growing number of rough sleepers on the streets of Newcastle, Damien Wootten began photographing the homeless during the winter of 2017 - and continued to do so up to, and throughout, the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, this visible increase in local homelessness is one that reflects a national story.
In England a Wales an estimated 688 people died while homeless in 2020 - at an average age of 45 for men and 41 for women. This was actually a slight fall in the yearly death rate. This has been attributed to the Everyone In scheme, in which over 37,000 homeless people were housed temporarily during the early months of the pandemic and offered access to health and other support services - potentially reducing the number of deaths. However, some of the highest death rates recorded were those for the north-east of England.
The homeless have become so ubiquitous, that perhaps we no longer question the morality of a system that creates a situation where people live on the streets; we accept it as the norm. Austerity cuts to vital services including mental health provision, welfare reforms, cuts to housing benefit and benefit sanctions are all driving a homelessness crisis. This has been compounded by the roll out of Universal Credit, soaring private sector rents and a chronic shortage of social housing.
Damien spent time talking and listening to many of Newcastle’s homeless. One rough sleeper in Newcastle had been mugged at knife-point for a five pound note he had tried to hide in his shoe, another had had sleeping bags stolen multiple times. A scalding Greggs take-out coffee was thrown over Liam as he sat on Northumberland Street. Dean was invited back to a flat, then thrown out of a second floor window onto concrete, resulting in multiple life-threatening injuries.
It takes political will and pressure, funding commitments and a co-ordinated response, both nationally and regionally, to address the complex circumstances and causes of homelessness. There have been recent successes however, for example in Manchester, where Mayor Andy Burnham has prioritised tackling the issue, initiatives like A Bed Every Night and Housing First have reduced the numbers of rough sleepers by 67 per cent since 2017. Newcastle’s own initiative is Street Zero, which has the stated aim of ending rough sleeping in the city by 2022.
These photographs should not have needed to be taken - but they now stand as evidence: a record of a preventable crisis.
“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do - but who is that 'we'? - and nothing 'they' can do either - and who are 'they' - then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
This exhibition was made possible through crowd-funding and the generosity of Large Print Works. Damien would like to thank everyone who supported the project.