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.