It's becoming quite alarming how fast time has gone since I returned to Falmouth after the Christmas break. Just over a month has passed, and two weeks of my three-week project on relationships have been and gone. Even more worrying is that so far I have only shot one of the three required subjects for this assignment. Having said that, this one shoot turned out to be proverbial dynamite...
The day after I was given the brief I got in contact with a local vicar who has been sheltering the homeless in St. Columb Minor church near Newquay. On Sunday 6th February I spent the day with two of the rough sleepers who had been seeking shelter at the church for the past week or so: David Jones and Lee Parkinson . David and Lee showed me where they eat, sleep, drink and socialise. It's safe to say that the 8 hours I spent with them was probably one of the most interesting, insightful and eye-opening 8 hours I have had since beginning the Press & Editorial Photography course back in September of last year.
But let's start from the beginning. I originally got wind of the story through This is Cornwall, who posted the following article on their website: http://www.thisiscornwall.co.uk/Church-shelter-homeless/story-14133437-detail/story.html
The article tells of Reverend Chris McQuellin-Wright, a forty-year-old resident of St. Columb Minor who began sheltering the homeless in his church back in 2002. At first he only had a smattering of rough sleepers seeking shelter, often only receiving two to three people each year. Now, as the economic climate worsens, Chris has seen twenty-three homeless people pass through his church doors since November 2011 alone.
Now, one would take this as an encouraging sign for Chris, as news of his hospitality reaches farther and farther across Cornwall and the West Country; indeed, Chris welcomes the rough sleepers with open arms - being the vice chairman of the homeless charity St. Petroc's Society, Chris' dedication to these people goes beyond simply being a good Christian. In reality, though, the increased traffic of rough sleepers through the village of St. Columb Minor has given Chris a lot more grief than expected. This is not because of the homeless causing trouble in the village. No. It is in fact the villagers themselves who have been causing the trouble, complaining that the "scum" will ruin their village, which "is a very close and tight-knit community". Yes, the villagers who have their comfortable, warm houses and wide-screen televisions have been complaining about Chris' incredible devotion to these, admittedly troubled, but nonetheless needy, people. One man even squared up to Chris recently, branding him as "the most hated man in Newquay" for what he has been doing. This and more can be read in an article here, also on This is Cornwall: http://www.thisiscornwall.co.uk/Vicar-hated-offer-roof-Newquay-homeless/story-14456288-detail/story.html
I was pretty confused upon reading this article. I am not a Christian man myself - I do not support religious beliefs at all, in fact - but in my eyes, if a church should be doing anything, anything at all, then it is this. Needless to say, this gave the story an entirely new dimension, and I was spurred on to create the following documentation of the homeless of Nequay...
|Reverend Chris McQuellin-Wright|
I arrived at St. Columb Minor church at around 8:45am - 45 minutes later than planned. This was due to the fact that, apparently, the entire West Country stops moving on weekends. Kindly, Chris had waited for my arrival, despite the fact he had a service to take at St. Colan church a few miles down the road at 9:00am. So, following an extremely brief introduction to the homeless who had slept at the church the previous night, we sped over to St. Colan in Chris' car.
It was at this time that it became obvious that Chris was no 'ordinary' vicar. He was, in fact, quite brilliant, and probably the only vicar I will ever meet who doesn't severely get on my wick. His sarcastic rhetoric and habit of swearing as we drove over to St. Colan caught me totally by surprise. Chris obviously noted my reaction, saying "You obviously didn't Google me before you arrived, did you?". "No" I replied dumbly.
Service was due to start at 09:00am. After literally running in to the church and throwing on his robe at the altar in front of bemused church-goers, Chris was ready to begin. He began, in fact, by announcing the reason for his lateness that morning: me. A sea of Christian faces turned my way as I sheepishly apologised and pointed towards my camera, as if this would in some way help the people understand. An interesting start, to say the least. Chris then continued to talk in this humorous and informal rhetoric to the church-goers for quite some time, who appeared to be accustomed to such behaviour. Service then continued in its usual, Godly manner as another preacher took over to talk about how Facebook was the anti-Christ. Probably. At this point in time Chris then literally took a pew at the back of the church and proceeded to almost fall asleep... Either that or he was praying really, really hard...
In Chris' defence, he told me on the drive over that he had recently been working twenty-hour days due to his substantial roll in the community, not to mention looking after the homeless of Newquay. And in all seriousness, once the service began, I saw the dedicated, and slightly batty, vicar transform before my eyes. What I saw was a humble, God-fearing man who loved every minute of what he was doing...
It was not until after returning to St. Columb Minor that I came in to any sort of prolonged contact with the homeless, who had stayed at the church to wait for Chris' 11:00am service. As soon as I began photographing them I knew that this was where my story would be focused. I soon befriended David, who has been without a home since 2008 after having a nervous breakdown following the repossession of his home and a career in the armed forces, resulting in a serious drinking problem; and Lee, a native to Bournemouth who has been homeless since the age of sixteen (portraits below).
|David Jones, 49|
|Lee Parkinson, 40|
|from left to right: David Jones, Roberto Darrick and Lee Parkinson saying the Lord's Prayer|
|David and Lee wait in line receive bread and wine at the altar|
I felt that these scenes in the church alone represented how genuinely grateful and willing these people are to be part of a community who support each other. David and Lee admitted that they got a very positive feeling from being present at the services. Unfortunately, it would appear that this community, which prides itself on acts of good-will and respect, do not see the men in the same way.
|After the service Lee explained to me how he has heard the elder members of the community speaking in a derogatory manner about their presence within clear earshot of both Chris and the other homeless people.|
David, Lee and the other rough sleepers are not permitted to stay at the church all day, not even by Chris. As they were leaving to make their way in to town I asked if I could could join them. They were happy, and with orders from Chris - or 'Chris the Vic', as he has become affectionately known by the homeless people of Newquay - to "look after me", I made my way in to Newquay town, about to be shown the day in the life of people who have no home to return to after service...
|David and Lee look over the Newquay town beaches. In the distance The Atlantic Hotel sits on the headland.|
|David stops in the street to push a delivery van as its engine cut out in the middle of the road|
|It turned out that the man worked for Domino's Pizza, he offered Dave a free pizza in return for his help. "I believe in Karma" David said as we continued walking.|
|An abandoned house which, according to David, will soon become a new squat.|
|The L, a public toilet and shelter situated on the barrowfields on the outskirts of Newquay. David, Lee and other homeless people often hang out here to drink and socialise.|
Even after spending such a short amount of time with David and Lee, I could tell that they were not 'bad' people. Of course, they had made mistakes in the past - but who hasn't? They were genuinely kind and very happy to help me with my project, respecting the fact that I was simply interested in their situation, and not exploiting them to create some sob story. I was also very surprised at their respect for the surroundings. David made a point of never leaving rubbish on the floor, of defacing property or of stealing. He spoke of how the people of Newquay have an extremely stereotypical opinion of the homeless in Newquay, and yet every summer the tourists and locals litter the streets with their beer bottles and remnants from beach barbecues, contradicting their zealous views. He was also genuinely happy to help people - and not just me - as seen in the frames where he helped the broken down van in the road.
I got a strong feeling that David was simply unfortunate. He was a dedicated worker before he was forced to live on the streets in 2008; he had previously been a drug and alcohol tutor at a prison, helping those that had problems with substance abuse. He then served a long time in the forces, working in a bomb disposal unit for the army. He also trained in the emergency services, working as a fire fighter for several years. Unfortunately, David soon found himself in trouble with alcohol himself. Blaming the heavy drinking culture in the armed forces as part of the problem, he told me of how "If you had a problem, you had a pint". His abuse of alcohol spiralled. His body became alcohol dependent to the point that he would suffer from 'alcoholic seizures' if he did not have alcohol in his system. Following a string events in 2008, including the disintegration of his relationship and the repossession of his home, David had a nervous breakdown.
After three years of living on the streets, however, David has accepted his problems. He has limited himself to four cans of beer or cider a day, and is accepting help from Veterans' Aid, a charity which deals with ex-armed forces personnel who suffer from alcohol dependency and other mental or physical problems.
|David and Lee sit in a public shelter by the harbour where they often sleep at night. Sometimes the fishermen will give them freshly caught fish to cook at the church in St. Columb.|
|David stops by Boots to put on cologne. "No need to smell like a homeless person is there?" he said to me.|
|David asks a couple in the street for a cigarette.|
|David picks up a bottle of cider at £2 for two litres from Bargain Booze to share with a friend who did not want to be photographed.|
|Lee sits on the steps to Mind, an organisation which helps those with addictions and mental illnesses.|
|David picks up his free pizza from Domino's.|
As we made our way around Newquay, David introduced me to one of his friends, Clive Bladen. David met Clive on his birthday after he gave him a joint on the beach. Now, they see each other almost daily. Clive was quite articulate, and told me of how he lived on the streets through choice after massive problems with his relationship. He did not appear upset or even worried about the fact he did not have a home.
|Clive chats with David and Lee on the steps of the Beach Nightclub in Newquay town centre.|
|The bench where Clive chooses to sleep, despite the offer of the church from Chris|
As we were returning to the church in St. Columb, David and Lee stopped at The L to finish off the Domino's pizza which was given to them. As we approached we saw a very small and frail man sitting on the bench. As we sat down it became clear that this man obviously had severe mental difficulties. He struggled with talking and was shivering violently due to the harsh wind which was blowing across the headland, a problem which was not helped by the fact he was merely dressed in tracksuit bottoms, sandals and a T-shirt. What followed was probably the most humbling part of the entire day, as David and Lee attempted to feed and dress the man...
|David offers a slice of hot pizza in vain, willing the man to eat. It appeared as though he was not even aware of what he was looking at.|
|David gave wrapped his coat around the still unidentified man. Although he could not talk, his appreciation was evident.|
After spending the day with these people, and gaining but a fraction of an experience of their way of life, I feel compelled ot continue documenting their lives. After speaking to Chris, it is agreed that I will be returning to St. Columb and Newquay very soon to create an on-going study of the homeless of Newquay. Perhaps I can change peoples' perception of these misunderstood and often compassionate people - perhaps I won't. But it is the first time I have truly felt the need to prove - or at least say - something with my photography.