Every city one visits, traces of homelessness can be seen everywhere. My principal memory of visiting London in November was the vastly increased volume of visible homeless people. Likewise my visit to Cardiff in December. In Chester and Wrexham through January and this month, I can say the same. Indeed, I’m aware via my walks and cycles of many places where homeless people congregate, occupy and sleep in and around both conurbations.
Only very recently, however, have I addressed homelessness in my academic teaching. In my second-year (level 5) ‘Contemporary Past’ class, we’ve discussed the archaeology of homelessness alongside a host of other themes about contemporary society revealed through an investigations of its material cultures and built environments. Indeed, on field trips, we’ve walked past sleeping homeless people and witnessed traces of their presence. I feel it is both inevitable and important that we discuss contemporary homelessness and its causes and contexts in our academic work as well as our personal lives.
Yet of course photographing and recording rough-sleeping and other material cultures of homelessness is a topic fraught with ethical and practical challenges. Is documenting traces of homelessness ‘raising awareness’, or exploitation? We wouldn’t break into people’s living rooms to conduct contemporary archaeology without the home-owner’s permission, so should we record the traces of homeless people who live their lives exposed to the public gaze and need to operate almost exclusively in public spaces?
Navigating such challenges, unsurprisingly perhaps (especially given archaeologists’ tradition of tackling the unspoken, the hidden, and the subaltern) in recent years some archaeologists have explored the theme of homelessness as a dimension of late modernity. On this side of the Atlantic, the work of Dr Rachael Kiddey has notably culminated in a recent book – Homeless Heritage – which I’m proud and pleased to have recently acquired.
Kiddey raises many fascinating issues about contemporary society through her research, but in this context I would point out that there is an Archaeodeath dimension to the archaeology and heritage of homelessness. As Kiddey and John Schofield have explored, the lives and the deaths of homeless people are ‘hidden’ in plain sight in our society, yet their memorials, just as with their daily lives, are rapidly expunged from public spaces. Hence, homeless people are repeatedly denied a memorial presence in public environments. In the UK, the ‘glorious’ military dead are everywhere, yet the homeless dead – including their fair share of ex-military personnel – rarely (i.e. never to my knowledge) constitute the focus of public memorialisation.
This leads me to one potential trace of homelessness in a public space I encountered recently with students, since it might represent a homeless adaption of memorial spaces. In this instance, the mainstay of contemporary public memorialisation, the park bench, has been adapted for homeless use.
I don’t know for sure, and indeed, anyone could have done this. Still, I asked my students why they might be positioned in this fashion – two benches that should be lining the outer walls of Chester cathedral but re-arranged to face each other – and they immediately suggested ‘a homeless person might have done it to create a place to sleep’.
For me, this modest adaption of an ultra-official, Christian, urban space – the Cheshire Regiment Memorial Garden in the grounds of Chester Cathedral – throws into sharp relief the invisibility of homelessness as it hides in plain sight. They might use the bench to sleep on, but the memorials are to others.