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  • John McKiernan

Creative Home: Human Ingenuity in Times of Upheaval

Mattress in Phone Box, Photo by Clodagh Miskelly

Across London there is increasing visibility of the housing crisis with much of the media and charity attention rightly focused on the plight impacting individuals and families. Yet few probably give a great deal of attention to the creativity and innovation that stems from such situations.

This project explores the ingenuity required to survive living on the streets, focusing on how people deal with the most basic of need, that of shelter. We want to celebrate the resourcefulness and inventiveness of people who need to make a London doorway, street or alley their home. We will not be looking at intervention programmes delivered by organisations and institutions nor entering the debate about solutions to the housing crisis. Creative Home is purely about human creativity and innovation.

Understanding the meaning of Home

Understanding the definition of ‘Home’ is imperative to this project. Home is primarily about a permanent shelter yet it also implies more than that: warmth, comfort, security, a social network, memories. Home does not have to be in a house, as we know it, a home can be a cardboard box as the Cambridge dictionary [1] proposes. How is a simple piece of pressed paper turned into a home, however? What tactics and strategies are used to transform some bits of material into place of protection and warmth?

Over Autumn 2016 we will investigate the notion of the creative home, focused mainly on street sleeping but also open to explore homelessness in all its forms.

A briefing note from the London Network of Nurses and Midwives on Homelessness

Increased homelessness

The number of individuals seen rough sleeping by street outreach teams in London has increased 90% between 2010-2011 (3975) and 2014-2015 (7581).[1] Note that this represents the number of individuals seen over the year, and not the street count for one night. In 2014 the street count revealed 742 rough sleepers in one night. This accounted for 27% of rough sleepers in the count nationally, and was up 37% on the previous year.[2]

During the same period hostel bed spaces in London have decreased 27% between 2011 (13,263) and 2014 (9,647).[3] It is thought these statistics may be related, although the increase in rough sleeping may also be related to welfare reform and migration.

There are many forms of ‘hidden’ homelessness including squatting, ‘sofa surfing’ with friends, family or acquaintances, and sleeping on buses or in transport hubs. Women and migrants are often hidden from view, with women sometimes exchanging sex for accommodation, and migrants frequently living in multiple occupancy accommodation. Some people sleep in safe places during the day, and wander at night.

Homeless Health

A large scale study of the death certificates of homeless people by Crisis in 2011 calculated the average age of death of homeless men to be 47, and homeless women to be 43. This study suggested that a third of deaths in this group are caused by drug and alcohol, and that homeless people are 9 times more likely to commit suicide [4].

For references read full article

Over the Christmas holiday 2016 we will exhibit Creative Home within the Innovation Box on Bedford Row. The presentation will be project led, this means that the outcome will be dictated by research, conversations, findings and input of all those who become involved.

The project lead is Johannes Lenhard, a PhD candidate from University of Cambridge researching homeless and poverty.

To become involved please email PLEASE NOTE: This project is unfunded.

Project Inspiration

The genesis for Creative Home was from an innocuous conversation between Environmental Service Officer Ann Baker at London Borough of Camden and myself. The Innovation Box is situated in Camden and I rang Ann to ask her how best to dispose of the old cardboard inside the phone box. She offered to clear it and casually mentioned that it may belong to someone who is homeless. This random observation began a train of thought leading to this project. Ann was unaware at the time that this was the reason for the cardboard. I was intrigued by Ann’s comment and after making a few enquiries I met with Johannes, who confirmed that cardboard is kept in phone boxes to be used to make a home for the night.

Ann has now begun to notice cardboard in many phone boxes and will document them for Creative Home. A conversation with BT engineer Richard, who kindly repaired various parts of the phone box before our intervention, provided an insight into the hardship of people sleeping rough in phone boxes around Charing Cross train station. His face visibly changed to sadness as he told of the people he encounters as he goes about his work, maintaining London’s decreasing number of red telephone boxes.

The Power of the Art Intervention

The power of the art interventions comes from the randomness of conversations generated by constructed situations. The urbanscape can appear dull, monotonous, unchanging where in fact it is always a rich ecosystem of constant change. Noticing is the only tool required to participate in urban observation.

We hope that Creative Home will shed a different light upon the way homelessness is viewed and becomes a celebration of the ingenuity of people of all ages and backgrounds in dealing with extremely difficult circumstances.

John McKiernan, ©2016

Photo: Mattress in Phone Box, kindly provided by Clodagh Miskelly

[1] (Accessed 29th September 2016)

#intervention #exhibition #innovationbox

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