By Dr Joseph Anderton
Approximately as many full-length novels and autobiographies written by British authors about or largely featuring homelessness were published in the last two decades as in the 50 years between 1950 and 2000. Homelessness seems to be growing in the public and cultural consciousness, and it remains a persistent and pressing issue. The number of people sleeping rough in England has increased by 165% since 2010 and is nearly five times the figure calculated in the 1960s (www.gov.uk/dclg). Although figures are not as high as the peaks of the 1980s, it is reported that local councils fear another 500,000 people could find themselves homeless in the UK as a result of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic (Barker 2020). Homelessness is lethal; it is estimated that 726 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2018, which is a 22% rise from 2017 and the biggest increase since the data was first collected in 2013 (ONS 2019). It is costly; the bill for temporary accommodation in England was in excess of £1billion last year (Shelter England 2019). And homelessness is, arguably, a particularly contemporary conception of an enduring state of being. In a 2017 blog post for the University of London’s ‘Stray Voices’ history of vagrancy project, Luke Seaber points out that the importance of homelessness as a label occurs after 1945 in the UK, particularly during the post-World War Two housing shortages and increasingly after 12 million people watched Jeremy Sandford’s television play Cathy Come Home on the BBC in 1966, which prompted the foundation of the homelessness charity Crisis. The usage of the word ‘homelessness’, as opposed to ‘vagrancy’, increased steeply around these historical catalysts.
Seaber’s view in Incognito Social Investigation in British Literature (2017) stretches back past the World War Two period to 1866 onwards to examine the way poverty, including vagrancy and homelessness, have been understood through ‘covert ethnography’. Studies on this practice and its findings are usually concerned with the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, such as Mark Freeman and Gillian Nelson’s Vicarious Vagrants: Incognito Social Explorers and the Homeless in England, 1860-1910 (2008) and Ellen Ross’s edited collection Slum Travelers, Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920 (2007). As Seaber points out, the majority of those classified as homeless at this time would have been invisible to the Greenwoodian tradition that frequented casual wards and common lodging houses. But, as Seaber later argues, meaningful discussion of homelessness, is “always going to lack something when it does not consider the historical specificity of the importance given to the concept itself” (“Invention” n.p.). Retrospectively applying the term ‘homelessness’ to Victorian and Edwardian writing, for instance, would miss the contemporary significance of the concept and suggests the necessity of recognising homelessness as a distinct form of vulnerability, born in an era of post-war austerity, state welfare, immigration and refuge, and neoliberal capitalism.
Long understood as a precarious condition, homelessness can also be described as an example of ‘precarity’, which is, according to Judith Butler in Frames of War, “the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks […] becoming differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death” (25). Departing from explanations of homelessness based on individual pathologies, precarity intersects with the claim that the structural causes of homelessness are more marked under the economic and labour conditions of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. These include: insecure employment; housing shortages, with Right to Buy and ‘affordable rent’ brackets reducing social housing availability; demanding rental rates; difficult benefit arrangements; the introduction of the Bedroom Tax; and government cuts to social services and mental health support. While the Conservative government’s Housing Act 1996, and Labour government’s Rough Sleeping Unit 1999 and Homelessness Act 2002 pushed responses to homelessness up the political and public agenda, the spike in homelessness around 2004 and increases again since the 2009 recession show the issue remains critical and conspicuous in the twenty-first century. The recent lockdown measures in response to Covid-19 reaffirm the “differential exposure” to life-threatening conditions facing homeless people, with the order to stay at home impossible for people on the streets, and social distancing not always possible for people in temporary accommodation, squatting or sofa surfing. The urgent action for local authorities to “bring everyone in” highlights the widespread and long-term scale of the issue in ‘normal’ conditions.
The Turn to Voices of Personal Experience
In the last 20 years, there has been a shift in how homelessness has been understood. From 1998 onwards, it was apparent that the voices of people who are homeless had been largely absent from previous research on homelessness (Ravenhill, 15) and that they were rarely given the opportunity to frame their own experiences, relationships or public images (Hodgetts, et al. 498). Writing about perceptions of homelessness since 1945, the historian Nicholas Crowson recognises that
the challenge of understanding homelessness is amplified by the absence of homeless peoples’ voices from history. Too often the experience of homelessness has been narrated and imagined by others, such as social investigators, charities, politicians, writers and the judiciary; the homeless are often passive and voiceless (n.p.).
One significant aspect of the precariousness of people who are homeless is their silence or voicelessness, as historically they have not been able to shape public opinions on homelessness through self-representation, with their own words and stories. The risk of uninformed, superficial, inaccurate and damaging depictions is clear. As Megan Ravenhill writes in The Culture of Homelessness: “Homelessness is an emotive word that conjures up in people’s minds pictures of the tramp walking the street, smelly, dirty and hungry, or the alcoholic, obnoxious, loud and drunk. To view all homeless people in terms of these two stereotypes is to do many an injustice” (5). Such stereotypes can sustain or exacerbate the vulnerability of homeless people as the real causes and conditions are obscured or ignored. Without an informed public consciousness to drive political intervention, people who are homeless can become stuck in the precarity of being “without social value, as the marginalised, poor, and disenfranchised, exposed to economic insecurity” and existential uncertainty (Kasmir n.p.). This is particularly true if the people experiencing various forms of homelessness are understood as a fixed demographic, which is not the case in reality. As Graham Bowpitt reiterates, “compared with 50 years ago, today’s rough sleeping population is younger, more female and more vulnerable. It has a greater proportion of foreign nationals, and it is larger and growing by the year” (n.p.).
However, the documentation of the personal reflections of people who are homeless is increasingly in their own words, such as the 2012 ESCR-funded ‘Losing and Finding A Home’ life-story project and the European Union DAPHNE III-funded research ‘Women Rough Sleepers in Europe Homelessness and Victims of Domestic Abuse’. Homeless charities often stress the importance of making real-life stories transparent and today almost all British homelessness charity websites include pages dedicated to brief first-hand accounts. This more recent emphasis on the authentic voice of lived experience also coincides with a rise in published literary texts about homelessness.
Since the turn of the twenty-first century in particular, a significant number of published autobiographies and non-fiction texts have appeared, including: Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (2005); Caryl Phillips’ ‘Northern Lights’ (2007); Frank Hurley’s The Boy in a Trenchcoat (2010); James Bowen’s A Streetcat Named Bob (2012); Charlie Carroll’s No Fixed Abode (2013); Craig Stone’s The Squirrel that Dreamt of Madness (2016); Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path (2018) and Tamsen Courtenay’s Four Feet Under (2018). These true stories are not minor cultural documents: two were adapted to film, one was the winner of The Guardian First Book Award, another was a Sunday Times bestseller. They share the themes of poverty, complex trauma and survival, and can be associated with the popularity of ‘misery lit’, otherwise known as ‘inspirational memoir’ or ‘painful lives’, which boomed in the mid-noughties. Of the top 100 bestselling paperbacks of 2006, 11 were memoirs about surviving abuse. With combined sales of 1.9 million copies, abuse memoirs made up 8.8% of sales in the 100 bestselling paperbacks that year.
While the struggle against adversity in homelessness auto/biographies can be associated with ‘mis lit’, this link does not tell the full story. For these books, some in particular, can also be positioned alongside the more recent antithetical trend of ‘up lit’, as stories often about difficult lives that involve empathy, kindness and redemption, which emerged most noticeably since 2017. As readers’ preferences changed over the last two decades, homelessness narratives featured in both genres, as Barbara Korte and Georg Zipp suggest: “the more downbeat misery memoirs were selling especially well when the British economy was booming in the mid2000s; now that it is in dire straits, more uplifting tales such as Call the Midwife and A Street Cat Named Bob appear to be in demand” (“Life Writing” 29). Curiously, as this mention of James Bowen’s hugely successful book (and spin offs) about his experiences of homelessness, addiction and the powerful intervention of another living being indicates, with the right trajectory towards solidarity and recovery, non-fiction homelessness narratives can work well as uplifting tales for difficult times.
Imagining Homelessness in the Contemporary Novel
The rise of homelessness auto/biographies is congruent with the academic shift to lived authenticity in the study of homelessness. But the non-fiction publications noted above also coincide with a rise in fictional literary texts about or featuring homelessness, including: Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001); Tim Lott’s Rumour of a Hurricane (2002); Trezza Azzopardi’s Remember Me (2004); Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (2010); Ross Raisin’s Waterline (2011), Liam Murray Bell’s The Busker (2014); Mahsuda Snaith’s Home to Find A Home (2019), and Crystal Jeans’ The Homeless Heart-Throb (2019). These published, longer-form contemporary British non-fiction and fiction books on homelessness remain relatively understudied, even though they arguably serve to further expose the causes and conditions of homelessness to raise awareness and educate their readership. Korte’s two books on the theme of poverty in British literature, Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain (2014, edited with Frederic Regard) and Poverty in Contemporary Literature: Themes and Figurations on the British Book Market (2014, written with Georg Zipp) are useful for signalling literature as an “important complement” to sociological studies on how representation informs public imagination and action. Both books contain chapters on a contemporary homelessness narrative, John Berger’s King: A Street Story, while the former also analyses Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs. These chapters are significant steps in revealing the power of experimental narrative modes to destabilise readers’ preconceptions of homelessness. They gesture towards fiction’s role in activating critical consciousness, countering political apathy, altering dominant discourses, and reconfiguring ideology. In his journal article, “The Turn to Precarity in Twenty-First Century Fiction” (2013), Jago Morrison analyses Trezza Azzopardi’s Remember Me (2004) as an example of the recent resurgence of affect in fiction and our relationship to, and responsibilities towards, the precarious other, particularly through the dynamics of seeing. Also reading Azzopardi’s novel, Emily Horton considers homelessness in terms of the post-millennial Gothic in her chapter “A Voice without a Name: Gothic Homelessness in Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001) and Trezza Azzopardi’s Remember Me” (2013). Horton centres on ghostly tropes as expressions of contemporary dehumanisation in her example novels and how they convey trauma, violence and socio-economic abjection. These essays subscribe to fiction’s capacity to humanize socially excluded groups, pairing the accessibility of the novel’s ostensible distance from reality together with the deeply empathic relationship springing from convincing psychological interiority, to enhance social cognition.
Notwithstanding these critical examples, it largely remains unknown whether literary fiction from around the UK reinforces or challenges common perceptions of people who are homeless, such as being “untrustworthy, dirty, lazy, pathological, and dangerous” (Arnold 7). It is not clear whether the diversity and complexity of homelessness is reflected in imagined stories, or whether they repeat either structural or personal causes, such as neoliberal capitalism, deviant (‘sin-talk’) and vulnerable (‘sick-talk’) explanations of homelessness (Harding 18–23). Furthermore, it is yet to be seen if literary representations capture the specific government policies and policing strategies that affect the local conditions of homelessness in different eras, and how contemporaneous political and economic contexts impact the composition and reception of the literature.
And yet, as much as the rise of post-millennial fiction might add an imagined portal to complement the sociological, ethnographic, autobiographical and statistical insights into homelessness, it is also in danger of distracting from or competing with the voices of lived experience. This concern around fiction was an underlying aspect of the British Academy-funded conference “Representing Homelessness” at the University of Lincoln in 2019, in which the political motto “nothing about us without us” was invoked several times as delegates discussed the ‘textuality’ of homelessness. If the people impacted by an issue should be included in policy decisions on it, it holds that the same principle could or should apply to the issue’s cultural representation. It is a responsibility that authors like Jon McGregor and Mahsuda Snaith take seriously through extensive research to prepare for their novels. But literary fiction must add a transformative layer of imagined exploration to any factual subject material, which at least models the act of relating to people who are homeless and thinking through homelessness from the outside, as it were.
Behind the post-millennial rise of British homelessness literature is the endeavour to not only bring those subject to homelessness in from the cold to tell their stories and participate in discourses that affect them, but also bringing readers into potently intimate and mindful entanglements with precarious lives and living conditions through the craft of storytelling and interpersonal powers of fiction.
 James Greenwood (1832-1927) was a British writer and early proponent of undercover journalism to investigate the social life of the poor. He disguised himself as a vagrant and published his observations in numerous articles and booklets, including ‘The Tramp’ in 1877.
Joseph Anderton, “The Post-Millennial Rise of British Homelessness Literature,” Alluvium, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2020): n.pag. Web 7 December 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.3.06
About the Author
Dr Joseph Anderton is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. He is the author of Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure after the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016) and is currently in the early stages of his second book, Writing Homelessness: Rough Sleeping in Contemporary British Literature. Joseph has research interests in modernism and its legacies, dehumanisation and the nonhuman, and has published articles on Beckett, Kafka, Coetzee, and Auster on these topics.
Arnold, Kathleen. Homelessness, Citizenship, and Identity: The Uncanniness of Late Modernity. New York: SUNY, 2004.
Barker, Nathaniel. “500,000 on Brink of Homelessness Because of Pandemic, councils warn.” Inside Housing, 7 May 2020.
Bowpitt, Graham. “Half a Century of Homelessness in the UK – Here’s What Has Changed.” The Conversation, 20 December 2016.
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2009.
Crowson, Nicholas. “A History of Homelessness.” History Extra, 22 November 2018. www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/history-homelessness-postwar-blitz-can-it-be-solved-vagrancy-treatment/
Harding, Jamie. Post-War Homelessness Policy in the UK: Making and Implementation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Hodgetts, Darrin, Andrea Hodgetts and Alan Radley, Alan. “Life in the Shadow of the Media: Imaging Street Homelessness in London.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 4 (2006), pp. 497–516.
Horton, Emily. “A Voice without a Name: Gothic Homelessness in Ali Smith’s Hotel World and Trezza Azzopardi’s Remember Me.” Twenty-First Century Fiction: What Happens Now, edited by S. Adiseshiah and R. Hildyard. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 132–146.
Kasmir, Sharryn. “Precarity”, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited byF. Stein et al., 2018, n.pag. http://doi.org/10.29164/18precarity
Korte, Barbara and Frédéric Regard, editors. Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.
Korte, Barbara and Zipp, Georg. Poverty in Contemporary Literature: Themes and Figurations on the British Book Market. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. “Rough Sleeping Statistics Autumn 2018, England (Revised).” February 2019. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/781567/Rough_Sleeping_Statistics_2018_release.pdf
Morrison, Jago. “The Turn to Precarity in Twenty-First Century Fiction.” American British and Canadian Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, 2019, pp. 10–29.
Office of National Statistics. “Deaths of homeless people in England and Wales: 2018.” 1 October 2019. www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsofhomelesspeopleinenglandandwales/2018
Ravenhill, Megan. The Culture of Homelessness. Farnham: Ashgate, 2008.
Seaber, Luke. Incognito Social Investigation in British Literature. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
————-. “The Invention of Homelessness?” Stray Voices: The Unsettled History of Homelessness, 5 October 2017. https://strayvoices.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2017/10/01/the-invention-of-homelessness/
Shelter England. “Homelessness crisis costs councils over £1bn in just one year”. 14 November 2019. https://england.shelter.org.uk/media/press_releases/articles/homelessness_crisis_costs_councils_over_1bn_in_just_one_year