In 2017 there were 597 deaths from homelessness. At least 235 people affected by homelessness have died between January and June 2019 – an average of one every 19 hours. (https://museumofhomelessness.org/2019/08/14/shocking-new-statistics-the-dying-homeless-project/ )
Statistics can be shocking but they are rarely moving. Personal stories of homeless people are rarely told because who would tell them?
Cardboard Citizens work with Homeless people in the UK and have collected six stories to tell in this play.
- Vernon Vanriel, a Windrush generation boxer
- Tomek, a Polish migrant marked with a tattoo of a drunk British stag party’s address
- Charlie Rowley, the man who found the discarded Novichok perfume bottle in Salisbury and gave it to his girlfriend Dawn Sturges.
- Eugeniusz Niedziolko, a man who the police left in a toilet to sober up instead of getting him medical aid
- Pericles Malagardis who was hospitalised, released and then could not collect his dog, Django, from the pound and
- Michael Cash, a man with a bottle of gin and a television in his shopping trolley.
Many of these stories were tragic and shocking enough to make the national news. Individually they are all moving stories which show the suffering of people who experience homelessness. Unfortunately, while individual tragic stories may move, if they are individual they may not appear to be part of a broader pattern. More news will come along tomorrow to replace the shock of these stories.
Bystanders gives you the facts upfront and then presents these six stories together. Each one a unique story; each one part of a broader picture of the experiences of homeless people.
Some of the play has elements of verbatim theatre – using the words and intonations of a real life person. Only Vernon was interviewed. Some of the other people could not be interviewed as they have died. Some could not be found. In some cases, Cardboard Citizens did not want to interview certain people. They describe the piece as unverbatim – not verbatim but with parts that are. They also describe it as intelligent theatre as the non verbatim parts draw from several other sources such as court records, interviews and police reports with imagination filling in a few blanks to serve the story.
Sometimes the actors are joined on the stage with a projection of the real persons photo or a video clip which relates to their story – because these stories are real.
These are not the stories of the actors (Jake Goode, Libby Liburd, Mark Lockyer, and Andre Skeete) but they could be as all four members of the cast have personal experience of homelessness.
The play is called Bystanders because one of its biggest criticisms is not against the few idiots who attack homeless people, but about the people who should help and instead do not. It particularly criticises authority figures such as the police, the medical professionals and the immigration officials who fail the people within these stories – not good enough. But as we are leaving we are each given a badge to wear which says “I’m not a bystander”.
Homeless people are among the most vulnerable in our society.
Homeless people are outsiders in society, regarded by the majority with shame and disgust. Being homeless might reﬂect a deep psychological inner homelessness. The life of the homeless person is charged with ambivalence and chaos – in exile, maybe too, from their own lives and with an intuitive need to create some kind of meaning in a ‘meaningless’ situation that does not follow or ﬁt the majority’s storyline and narrative structures towards resolution of harmony and safety.Ellen Foyn Bruun (2012) Dramatherapy with homeless clients: the necessary theatre, Dramatherapy, 34:3, 139-149, DOI: 10.1080/02630672.2012.737629. Pg 143
Homeless people have often experienced trauma or abuse. They are a group with few protections, no voice and who are often looked down on. When reduced to their most humble, they inhabit a world where most people will not make eye contact with them, where their meagre possessions may be stolen or vandalised, where architects install spikes to prevent them sleeping and where the police can move them on wherever they congregate. We are already bystanders to all of that.
Homeless people are still people and there are many more in society who are only a few missed pay cheques or a broken relationship away from being homeless themselves.
We are bystanders. How can we change the story?