Seeing homelessness in a new light

A crowdfunded film based on real-life interviews with homeless people aims to create new understanding of the issue – a shift that the younger generation in particular is embracing, says the film’s director

“For the older generations, the mindset is often still ‘they’re all junkies. What if they come and stab you?’” says 21-year-old film-maker Owain Astles. “Younger people are generally much more open-minded and sympathetic about it. There’s a huge generational difference. Changes in attitudes are slowly becoming possible.”

The demographics of homelessness are changing and young people in particular are starting to take notice of this, according to Astles. Filming for his crowdfunded docudrama Sleeping Rough is now complete and the editing process under way after 208 backers pledged £6,410 earlier this year to bring the project to life.

The Sleeping Rough film team has interviewed homeless people on the streets of cities including Bristol and London

The film will tell the stories of three people who became homeless for a variety of reasons and feature a cast of 21 actors, most of whom have previously been homeless themselves. Their stories are informed by the experiences of people such as Alan (pictured above) who lives on the streets of Bristol. Sleeping Rough will tour festivals, shelters, schools and colleges this summer before its release in September. All profits will go to homeless shelters.

“Not a single event has been twisted or appropriated. Everything is real,” Astles tells Positive News. The director hopes that younger viewers will create a “trickle-up effect”, informing older people who might have more entrenched stereotypes of homelessness, about the reality today.

Not a single event has been twisted or appropriated. Everything is real

He is at pains to note that not all older people are of intransigent mindsets. “Most of, if not all of, the charity leaders I’ve worked with are older people and they’re inspirational themselves; it’s rather that the unsympathetic mindset is more dominant among the older generation compared to the younger one,” he explains.

The number of rough sleepers in the UK rose for its sixth consecutive year in 2016. An estimated 4,134 people – up 16 per cent on 2015 – were made homeless last year. Meanwhile rents have gone up and housing benefits have been cut. The charity Crisis estimates, conservatively, that around a quarter of a million people in England are homeless.

“In the 1960s and 70s, drug and alcohol abuse were the main risk factors for homelessness,” says Astles, “but the picture isn’t that simple any more.”

Now, relationship breakdown is among the factors most often cited by men who are homeless. For homeless women, the most common causes are physical or mental health problems and escaping violent relationships. And another surprising trend emerged as Astles carried out interviews.

Astles hopes that the film’s script, based on real-life accounts by homeless people such as Racha (pictured above), will help shift mindsets about homelessness

“More and more former students are becoming homeless. They have degrees but then can’t find a job that covers their rent so they sleep on sofas at mates’ houses. Because of the old stereotypes, a lot of people don’t see the signs – that maybe they, or someone they know, might be at risk.”

Volunteers recorded interviews in cities including Bristol, London, Manchester and Exeter. They sent them to Astles, who has used some to thread together a plot. Three protagonists will tell their stories: a woman who has left care and then an abusive relationship; a man who has turned over the family home to his ex-partner and child; and a woman whose hopes for a new life in Britain have ended in barely-paid manual labour.

More and more former students are becoming homeless. They have degrees but then can’t find a job that covers their rent

The general election was announced since filming began. Astles describes the 8 June vote as “a massive opportunity, especially for young people, to do something about the homelessness crisis, by voting for the government that will actually help the situation, but also by writing to MPs, and campaigning about homelessness.”

He wants the film to be seen as widely as possible. His best-case scenario? “That someone who is a parent or grandparent changes their mind about homelessness. They might not listen to some liberal film-maker telling them that homelessness is a problem. But they will listen to their own kids.”

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Photography: Ken Abbott