The transformative power of journalism is such an important tenet for INSP and its many members across the world. This can be through empowering people experiencing homelessness by giving them the opportunity to buy and sell street papers as vendors. It can be by giving them a platform to speak out about social injustices through vendor written contributions that are published by the very same newspapers and magazines they sell. Out with the network of street papers, journalism can sometimes have an extremely positive effect on homeless people who are fortunate enough to be able to utilise it, giving them a voice when otherwise they would be silenced.
Last year, John-Paul Clark, a Glasgow resident, who had recently graduated from university with a degree in creative writing and journalism and was about to embark on a further year of Masters study in the subject, suddenly found himself plunged into a completely unexpected situation after the end of a long term relationship. He was homeless.
One year and two weeks later, he found himself with permanent accommodation and a lot of attention. The latter came from a series of blogs he began writing, giving an account of his experience living with homelessness, the emotions he went through and the system and process he endured to drag himself out of it. “I began actually writing things down as I was coming to the end of the whole homeless thing. People had been saying to me for a long time ‘Why don’t you write? You’re a journalist!’, but when you’re right in the midst of it all, it’s hard to do or focus on anything never mind be creative.”
The stories are a frank but articulate, creative but realistic, retelling of John-Paul’s circumstances, shedding light on some of the events leading to homelessness, castigating the mundane and complex system put in place to help him and those like him, highlighting the good work of charities and, most revealingly, detailing anecdotes and the development of his emotional state as he comes to terms with his situation.
The writing itself was initially borne out of wanting to react in some way – any way – to his position, but eventually it became clear to John-Paul that these snapshots into his new life without a home could be something more useful. “Initially I did it completely for myself, out of pure anger, with my reasoning simply as a means to try and stand up to the council.
“Eventually, I realised I could use it to help out other homeless people too because there aren’t a lot of resources out there for them that actually lay out what they can do, what can happen and the truth of the situation they’re in. There’s a total lack of information, and some important things you don’t hear about until weeks down the line.”
John-Paul began sharing his writing on social media, especially promoting it on Twitter and Reddit, the online discussion forum where, as the case often is in these fast-moving times, his stories began gaining traction and the buzz surrounding them took on a life of its own.
“If I hadn’t been articulate enough to start a blog and start shouting, and being proactive, I’d possibly still be around the homeless shelters.”
John-Paul was enthusiastic about how popular his work was becoming, and was enthusiastic about gauging the response from his readers. Unfortunately, not all the reaction was positive, and he began to receive some backlash. “I got some really bad abuse. They were saying really caustic stuff, about killing yourself and ‘it’s all your fault’, it was horrible, so I started to not go on there and interact with readers, which I had been doing at the beginning.
“There was a lot of back slapping and praise too, which was nice, and then some people challenging me, trying to engage in an actual dialogue, which, even though they were disagreeing with my view and my position, I can deal with. But when it was just derogatory, getting really perverse, that put me off Reddit.”
Thankfully, one very important pair of eyes had been following John-Paul’s work. “When I got to blog seven, it was coming close to the end of the series and people were telling me that I had to keep writing, not knowing I had been embarking on a career as a journalist before being hit by my homelessness bombshell. I was having these conversations with people online. Angela [Haggerty, CommonSpace editor] saw this conversation and she asked if CommonSpace could promote the blog.
Now, John-Paul’s blogs make up an ongoing ten part series being featured on the Common Weal-owned, Scottish news and opinions site.
Its editor, Angela Haggerty, knew John-Paul’s articles were exactly the kind of thing CommonSpace should shout about. She said: “CommonSpace is all about making sure that people get a platform and a chance to tell their stories, to have their say. Too many voices aren’t heard in our society and it’s shameful.
“Reading John-Paul’s story, told in such a raw and honest way, really brings a person into his world. That’s a real gift, because it’s only through the empathy that creates between people that we can hope to see lasting change. His series on homelessness is really important and I’m so glad he decided to put his experience down on paper, or on the screen, as it were. We’re really lucky to be working with him.”
Now that they are out there in the world, John-Paul hopes that the lessons that can be learned from these short stories are taken on by a wider audience. “Like I said, I hoped the homeless population would get to read the articles, but my writing is quite esoteric, so I wasn’t sure how many people experiencing homelessness would actually get to read it.
“Homelessness shouldn’t just be something people cross the street to avoid. Hopefully if they read my blogs they’ll understand that.”
“My aim then was to do something to defeat prejudices. Everyone’s got prejudices and biases against homeless people, so hopefully by reading my articles, some people have finally begun to see the real light as opposed to just addictions and other problems that a portion of the homeless population do experience.
“One of the most demoralising things was leaving a homeless shelter in the morning and feeling immediately looked down upon. People in a more privileged position are the kinds of people who need to want to help and understand the issue of homelessness, not just regard it as something to cross the street to avoid. Hopefully if they read my blogs they’ll understand that.”
A portion of the series is preoccupied with the seemingly never-ending, Kafkaesque journey that John-Paul, and presumably other people in a similar position, are sent on by council staff and caseworkers in an attempt to get some help. He bemoans the lack of clarity and answers. “The cynic in me kind of says that that’s part of the design, to turn people away. I do think a lot of the process is there to try and deter people from even asking for help.”
As John-Paul tells, in stark detail, of moving from sleeping rough, to being put up in hostels and B&Bs, to other temporary accommodation, he shows the cracks in the housing safety net system put in place to catch people falling into a homelessness situation, and criticises the thinking behind the location of shelters, the amount of paperwork and the lack of information. “You’re constantly moved about. What I don’t understand is that these hostels are put in middle class areas – people are impoverished, but they are forced to moved away from areas of the city that they call home and are familiar to them.
“Once they’re stuck in these shelters, they don’t have money to get to these other parts and end up just loitering around. It’s a cycle that’s hard to escape from. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Reading John-Paul’s story, told in such a raw and honest way, really brings a person into his world.”
As the series winds down to its close, John-Paul is grateful to find himself in a better position to the one that spurred him on to write in the first place. “I’m meant to continue my studies and hopefully these articles have put me in a position where I’ll have a job too. We’ll see how things go.”
It is clear that there is a resilience about John-Paul that helped pull him out from a position that, to many others, may have been hopeless. He is adamant that he is responsible for the improved shift in his life. “If I hadn’t been articulate enough to start a blog and start shouting, and being proactive, I’d possibly still be around the homeless shelters.
“This whole experience kind of made me turn my life around. I have somewhere to stay, I have prospects, and I’m getting back into relationships again. Everything is going a bit better. I moved into my permanent accommodation in May. The first month was tough, but now that’s sorted I’ve been trying to get myself fit, physically and mentally, because it was really tiring. But yeah, I feel as if my life is getting back on track.”
You can follow John-Paul on Twitter @homelessglesga
Find John-Paul’s Homeless in Glasgow series over at CommonSpace