Problems for homeless people/workers/organisations with creative technology

Well, I want to try summarise a little of our experience so far in using creative technologies with homeless people:

The importance of trust

To state what should be the obvious, a lot of homeless people have complex problems, including difficult and damaged relationships with others, particularly with institutions, organisations, and structures of power. By asking homeless people to adopt new technology, we’re actually asking them to adopt new behaviour. We can’t pretend otherwise.

A positive change in behaviour I think only comes about as a result of trusting relationships. Technology and online community can’t replace a very real lack of positive human attachments. The importance of regular, dependable, routine human contact in a physical group space I think is paramount for helping people adapt to a positive change.

So alongside any work on creative empowerment, I can’t stress enough the importance of working with the material needs of the individual, whether housing support, mental health support, employment support, etc. (This moves us close to a debate on the efficacy of the homeless day centre model).

What I’m saying is that organisations or individuals that approach homeless people/organisations with very structured short-term programmes/workshops narrowly focused on preconceived outcomes, detached from this broader context, end up missing the very people they aim to engage. We need skilled, aware people with sufficient open-minded contact, in order to build relationships of trust that can incorporate the complexity of people’s respective life situations.

Approaching people in the right way

Following on from above, if we understand creative empowerment as about working through a variety of informal ways of sharing the means with homeless people to develop their creativity, (and I think we should!), workers have to be open and flexible enough to find the right pathways for the right people. Photography was a good pathway in for some in my Thursday evening group. After advertising and recruiting some clients for a photo group, I realised after a few abortive conceptual efforts of talking about the imagery of homelessness in traditional and new medias, was, in a way, to do exactly opposite – to get people to think less about the meaning of images, and creative technologies, but to focus on the issues that actually might prevent them from going out and taking some images in the first place. It was only after we had managed to get a film taken, or a few camera pictures printed out and laid out on the table, that we could then start thinking about meaning and narrative, and other creative technologies/tools for presenting that.

Photography was a pathway in for some, for others it might be writing, music, art, history, etc. In other words, if you try advertise and recruit for something presented with meaningless terminology such as a ‘creative technologies workshop’, you again risk it meaning nothing or alienating the very people you attempt to target.

Sharing or collaboration?

Sharing in small creative groups of homeless people at CSTM is much easier than collaborative production, which implies tension between the individual and group goals, the introduction of some form of group identity, or communal standards/collective decision-making. As discussed above, many of the clients that I work with at CSTM have significant difficulties relating to others, individually and in groups. Moreover, there is a tendency to identify the homeless in London as a community, when in fact the manner in which homeless people relate themselves to a ‘homeless identity’ is complex, diverse and contradictory. This makes truly collaborative group production challenging, particularly when the ‘homeless’ element of the media production is being heavily emphasised.

This is not to say collaborative production shouldn’t be attempted, just that it can be difficult.

I think work in developing creative media with homeless people needs to be clear about how realistic the demands are it places for collaboration, particularly if we understand social tools not so much as creating new motivations among their users, but amplifying existing ones. If the overwhelming urge of an individual is to be seen or heard, or tell their story, that may be the limit of their motivation to collaborate within that particular space.

Entrenchment of negative behaviour patterns

Now this is a controversial one:

A few homeless people in central London are now actively using social and creative media as public tools to interact with homeless services and the broader world, and have drawn large followings. The attention they are able to command by merit of their homeless identity, particularly from media and homelessness organisations, may make it more difficult to move forward to place when a ‘homeless identity’ can be less readily claimed, (I’m speculating). Presumably, as more homeless people take up social media, there will be a less disproportionate pressure on these few voices.

I’ve said a lot here, would be interested in hearing what people think.  In the coming days I’ll write about some ideas I’m proposing for how we can develop new work/approaches with digital media/creative technologies at CSTM.

Thanks, B

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Small scale digital media projects at CSTM

So what have we done to date?

Myself and my colleague Chris Andrews currently run between us three digital media groups in the day centre:

  • Touchbase: Youth homeless website working with young homeless clients (26 and under) that attempts to reach and inform/discourage other young people that are vulnerable of becoming homeless. This group has used a variety of different technologies, including filming, animation, photography, audio slide-shows, visual mapping, social media (, and a website.
  • Digital Real Rough Guide: Currently working closely with Strandlines, the group aims to put together digital guides of homeless history in the West End, using a variety of different digital media (
  • Photo/Media Group: Originally started on a Thursday evenings to create online material for the BBC Radio 4 Christmas Appeal Campaign, the group developed an identity of it’s own, using photomedia and audio recordings to document life experiences. It’s been on a small hiatus due to the axing of evening services, but is resuming at the start of May with a scope to develop creative homeless media. (specific blog to follow, will update)

The Art Space and Creative Writing Group also have been using Facebook Pages for the last year to archive creative work and act as points of reference for interested ‘followers’.

CSTM has an organisation has recently started a blog and has been encouraging contributors from across the organisation to talk about the work they do. (I’ll update a link when I can find it!)

Interest and awards

It seems our use of digital media has attracted quite a bit of attention, it’s clearly a sexy subject at the moment:

  • In November, on the back of the digital media groups, we won the overall Talk Talk Digital Hero prize. The award put us in contact with the Talk Talk Chairman, (who has since offered use of his media centre in Soho for digital project launches), the Chief Executive of Citizens Online, John Fisher, and Matha Lane Fox, founder of and the government’s Digital Champion.
  • In early January we also won an award from the Media Trust, who offer good connections with media professionals.
  • In March the Guardian newspaper ran a story and gallery on the photo project.


Well, this always the tricky bit. From a practical perspective, I guess homeless clients (and the people working with them like me!) have learnt a whole range of new computer-based skills. This doesn’t necessarily follow to qualifications or employment opportunities.

From a therapeutic perspective, I think the use of new digital technologies in a homeless day centre setting seems to offer an expansion in tools that aid our human expressive capacity. Looking at some of the digital media projects, such as the audio slideshows, these projects can help give a language to feelings, articulating stories, but yet at the same time retain a certain playfulness.

See Jamie’s slideshow here:

See Touchbase A-Z of Homelessness, “P is for Prostitution”

They can also connect together the desire to make an expression with a potential audience/others wishing to listen/hear it, perhaps in a position to respond to it.

I guess the big unproven question is if this work can help people to change?

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Creative technology and the homeless

Are creative technologies becoming more accessible to homeless people, and what are the limitations? When are we going to see some decent research done on technology accessibility issues for homeless people? For example, I would love to know how many rough sleepers in central London are using phones, and how. These are some of my thoughts:

Usage of Smartphones

It seems to me an increasing numbers of the homeless people I work with now have mobile phones, including smartphones. I can only speculate that the reason some homeless people may not have a phone is less to do with affordability, (most homeless people have access to some form of income from a variety of sources), but potentially one or more of the following reasons:

  • Too chaotic/unwell due to mental health/drug and alcohol addictions;
  • Seriously entrenched in a lifestyle that promotes social isolation;
  • An older generation that is unfamiliar with using modern communications technology.

The usage of the features of Smartphones for those that have them however seems to remain quite limited. Taking pictures, and for some, updating social media, Facebook and Twitter, listening to music/radio.

Something I’ve certainly become aware of that makes Smartphones less attractive to rough sleeping homeless people is the limited battery charge life, as it’s difficult to find places to charge the phone. When you leave it to be charged in places it can get stolen, or the charger gets stolen. (How can we think of solutions for this problem?)

Internet Accessibility

There are a variety of different WiFi hotspots across central London that make accessing the internet easy, including public libraries, cafes, McDonalds, cultural venues, etc. Moreover, I’d imagine most homeless centres provide internet access as a basic service. (CSTM is looking for funding to make itself into a WIFI hotspot-though their remain issues to resolve, for example, WIFI range: for various reasons we don’t want people hanging around in front of the building after we close).

Training Opportunities

IT training courses in many London homelessness services seems to focus on more formal IT training qualifications such as CLAIT, with a focus on employability. The more informal creative potentialities of social media and digital technologies, digital storytelling/community media production, through free software, phone apps, etc. have not yet been incorporated.

I was interested to see a couple of weeks ago the Big Issue announced a couple of weeks ago that it will start issuing it’s vendors with smartphones in order for them to capture media for the magazine. The start of a big shift in homeless media?

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Introducing my blog

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about digital technology and homelessness, and I want to share some of my experiences/thoughts/ideas here. Would love to hear from anyone who finds any of this interesting.


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