Homeless in Kingston

Matt

This is Matt Hatton. He’s the director of a small charity called Kingston Churches Action on Homelessness. As the name suggests, Matt’s group helps homeless people in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames. Some of them are sleeping rough on the streets, most have no place to call home – they maybe sleep on a mate’s sofa – others are at risk of becoming homeless, often because they can’t pay the rent or have been kicked out.

Matt’s group runs a drop-in centre that gives people advice about housing and benefits. Most of the people who visit expect KCAH to find them somewhere to live, but that’s not usually possible. Hostel and council beds are in short supply in Kingston, as they are elsewhere across London. And many of Matt’s ‘clients’ have serious drug and alcohol problems; they often need to address those before they can be housed.

I’m writing an article about Matt and his work for The London Community Foundation, a charity that funds small, grassroots groups across the capital. I recently became their writer in residence, something I’ll share more about later. Part of my role involves writing stories about the people the LCF works with, the projects it supports, and the Londoners in need who benefit from all this good work. Visiting Matt was one of my first assignments.

georgie

This is Georgie Foreshaw. She’s a housing advisor who works with Matt. If you face a housing crisis, Georgie is the person you’ll most likely end up talking to. She’ll try to help you get back on your feet. And if you’re desperate, she might give you a tin of soup, a sleeping bag, and maybe even some clothes.

Georgie laughed when I asked her to describe a typical day; they’re always different. When I asked her to tell me a story about one client, this is what she shared:

“Her dad was a heroin addict. He left home when she was two. At thirteen, she went into care. She was bounced around from place to place and started using drugs. When she first came to the drop-in service, she was on the streets, selling herself. She was high and paranoid. But for some reason she trusted me. She’d come to the centre every day and then I’d not see her for ages. It was very random. Then she settled into a pattern, visiting twice a week. We built a nice routine. Now she’s in temporary accommodation with the council. She’s been clean for ten weeks and is doing brilliantly. She’s even talking about going to college. When she stops coming to see me, it will be sad – but lovely.”

I spent a morning with Matt and Georgie. I think they are amazing people. I’ve written my stories about the work they do and will post some links here when they have been published.

sign

The way to go for help

 

KVAH

The KCAH offices. There are often people living in this car park. None on the day I visited, thankfully.

Bespoke stories, written on the spot

A simple question can take you to some very interesting places.


I had my second outing as a writer in residence yesterday. This time I was in Oxford Street Books, Whitstable, writing stories inspired by whoever came into the shop. To make life more difficult, I decided to try and write these stories – brief flash fictions – on the spot. Give me the inspiration for a story, and you can take the resulting slice of literature away with you. Now.

Partly, I wanted to demystify the process of idea generation. I wanted to show people – and myself, too – that ideas can be found anywhere, and that the writing process can be very quick, when necessary. I also felt that I, like many writers, spend a lot of time hanging about in the shadows, eavesdropping and observing, finding small details that could form the beginnings of a character or a story. I wanted to be more open about this process, I wanted to thank the people who inspired me, and show them what I had produced as a consequence – even if it was rubbish.

So armed with my now familiar toolkit of 3×5 cards, BlueTac, paperclips and pencils, I set about my task. I picked customers at random and said something like this: “Excuse me, but I’m a writer and I’m working on a special project here today. I’m writing stories inspired by the people who come into the shop. Would you inspire me please?”

This question tended to generate a nervous laugh, a look of terror or just blank incomprehension, so I quickly followed up with a simple instruction: “An easy way for you to inspire me would be to tell me your favourite word. What is it?”

Now, the answer to this question wasn’t very important at all. But it opened the door to further probing. It was remarkable how quickly I could go from a simple question (“So, why is peace your favourite word?”) to something much deeper (“So, do you feel that your life is in a dark place at the moment?”) I had no idea these brief conversation would be so revealing.

I’d furiously scribble notes and when the conversation seemed to have run its course – and people wanted to talk for a lot longer than I expected – I would ask them to browse the shelves while I wrote something for them. Every time I sat down to look at my notes, I had no idea what I would write. But I always managed to produce something. I would give the result to the customer, and stick a copy to the wall or a shelf for other people to read.

It was an exhausting, but inspiring day. Massive thanks to the great people at ReAuthoring who – yet again – made this all possible. Here are some photos (be kind – keep in mind, each piece of writing took about 90 seconds! And apologies for the handwriting):

This is Anne, reading “Anticipation”, which she inspired

Anticipation, inspired by Anne
Start Counting

This guy had a great attitude. He inspired Start Counting

Brilliant Brian – he owns the shop and makes great tea

Jane enjoying “On the Edge”, which she inspired 

On the Edge

Some of my stuff, pinned in place

The Woman Who Married a Parrot

Wendy with “The Woman who Married a Parrot”

The poster I put up in the window

Poster for inside the shop

I wrote stories on the reverse of these “thank you” cards


Stories from the festival writing shed

Sometimes it’s worth making a plan, if only for the fun of ripping it up

I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would spend my time as a “writer in residence” at the Lounge on the Farm music festival. I experimented beforehand with new technologies. I spent ages downloading apps and trying to get them to work. I wanted my iPhone to be a pocket-sized multi-media publishing hub.

But I abandoned most of what I’d planned to do within maybe 30 minutes of arriving on site. There were so many actual, real-life walking, talking and partying people to interact with. I wasn’t that bothered about tinkering with my phone or reaching out to a virtual audience.

Instead, I went analogue. My creative tools became sharpened pencils, 3×5 cards, paperclips and string.

I accosted passers-by and asked them to reveal their most and least favourite words. I strung these together, hung them in the breeze, and made a story out of them. I wrote flash stories on my 3×5 cards and gave them to people as they queued for burgers or sipped their tea – “Would you like a fresh piece of fiction with your Earl Grey, madam?” Nobody said no. I wrote provocative lines on cup-sleeves for the owners of a coffee stall – their customers loved them, they reported later.

I sat in my writing shed – shared with the rest of the brilliant ReAuthoring team – and answered endless questions from curious people: what are you doing? why? are you really a writer? like, properly?

I learned how easy it can be to slip a little literature into someone’s life – just a scrap of paper and a few words will do the job. And how varied, surprising and pleasant the effects can be. Ten words in the right order can make someone laugh, call over their mates, stop, laugh again, then go away “for a bit of a think”.

I’m a writer in residence again next week, this time in Whitstable, where I’ll be taking over Oxford Street Books for a day. I’ll be writing on-the-spot flash stories and other literary morsels, inspired by the customers and the books they browse, from 3pm to 5.30pm. Drop by and I’ll write something for you.

A quiet moment, writing outside the shed
A story left on the grass for anyone to find

A coffee customer enjoys his shot of words
A line on a coffee cup
Fun people enjoy a story I wrote for them

One of the many lines I pinned to the shed