Paula Barker: ‘How an exhibition tells the true stories of people suffering homelessness’

On the first day back after Christmas recess we launched a week-long exhibition in the Upper Gallery in Parliament called Outsiders. Outsiders is a documentary photography project by Marc Davenant which aimed to capture a snapshot of homelessness in modern Britain over a six-year period.

Exhibitions like this one are so important because they show us the real people and stories behind the awful statistics we constantly hear and read about. They remind us that those suffering from homelessness have dreams and goals just like anybody, and they don’t deserve to be left to live in fear or to experience the trauma of homelessness and insecure housing. And most importantly perhaps, for this exhibition in Parliament, it reminds those in Government that these are the people they are not only letting down but also criminalising when they propose legislation like the Criminal Justice Bill.

Currently, we have almost 3,000 people sleeping rough in England, despite the fact the current Government promised to end rough sleeping by this year, 2024. They also promised to repeal the Vagrancy Act which criminalises those forced to sleep rough – but instead, in potentially their last few months of power, they are trying to push through the Criminal Justice Bill.

The Bill, if passed as it is, would allow fines of up to £2,500 and even a year in jail for those sleeping rough or begging. It’s a callous policy that will make the lives of those already in an unimaginable situation, worse.

When the Government creates policies like the Criminal Justice Bill or a member of the Government calls homelessness a ‘lifestyle’ choice and suggests taking away tents, it sadly makes it inevitable that life will become even harder for those stuck sleeping rough. For example, not long after these comments were made by the then Home Secretary, we saw the incident of a man sleeping rough being hosed down by a member of McDonald’s staff on a freezing cold evening. It’s heart-breaking.

It’s not just rough sleeping that’s the problem. As the exhibition documents, there are ever-growing numbers of families and individuals living a nightmare every day because they are stuck in awful, unsafe and substandard temporary accommodation. There are currently over 105,000 households in temporary accommodation. This includes nearly 140,000 children. It’s just not good enough, temporary accommodation should be just that, temporary – not to mention, fit for purpose, safe and healthy.

Which is why once in power the Labour Party has pledged to build 300,000 affordable homes every year, which is a great start, and will help alleviate the long-term problem of housing supply. However, I also believe we need to put an end to the very damaging siloed approach to the issue of homelessness if we are to have any hope of ending it.

In our first 24 month in power, Labour must prioritise setting up a cross-departmental strategy to end homelessness, led by a taskforce of experts, like the team at Crisis and other similar organisations, as well as people with lived experience. We need a trauma informed, holistic approach to tackling the issue, as homelessness isn’t just about not having a roof over your head – it’s a difficult issue that’s tied to mental health, complex needs and poverty, amongst many other things.

However, it’s not just about policy change. It’s also about changing attitudes. Exhibitions like this play a crucial role in that. Outsiders is so important because it reminds us of the real people we’re fighting for and tells us the true and unvarnished stories of those suffering homelessness.

So, let’s keep supporting projects like Marc’s. Let’s keep pushing for policy change. And most importantly, let’s keep reminding everyone who will listen that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice, and it’s definitely not a crime. If you see someone experiencing homelessness, even if you have no money to give, make sure you stop for a moment and have a conversation – being treated with the respect and humanity is as important as anything.

The exhibition “Outsiders” was created by photographer Marc Davenant, sponsored by Crisis and the APPG for Ending Homelessness, and arranged for parliament by Mick Whitley MP and his staff. 

The exhibition in Parliament wasn’t open to the public but the touring exhibition will be shown in Lichfield, Newcastle and Derby this year, for more information visit: