Activism

'It's about making the invisible visible': A day at the UK's only festival for homeless people

While Kwasi Kwarteng was dishing out tax cuts to the wealthiest in society, the UK's only festival for people experiencing homelessness was taking place a few miles north of Parliament. We went along

"Joy coordinator' Elodie Berland waves a bubble wand at Streets Fest. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

“It’s all in the wrists”, I’m told as a tube full of bubbles is thrust into my hand.

I’ve barely been at the festival five minutes but have already been given a role to play. Instructing me is Elodie Berland, a volunteer wearing a navy tabard and pink heart-shaped sunglasses who describes her role as a “joy coordinator”.

That’s the spirit of the Streets Fest, a festival run for homeless people in London’s Finsbury Park, which aims to offer some of society’s most vulnerable people a day of enjoyment and help.

“It is a crisis but at an equal level you’ve got joy which is straight out of the crisis. It’s not about being serious or not serious – I am extremely serious about what I do,” Berland says.

“It’s about making the invisible visible. When we’re doing the bubbles, people see the bubbles as well and stop and see that you actually give a shit.”

Now in its fifth year, Streets Fest began as a few stalls in a park. Finsbury Park plays host to a range of festivals – this year saw Wireless, headlined by Cardi B, and Community Festival, with Sam Fender – but none are quite like this.

Dotted around are tents handing out food and clothing, a stage playing music, and stalls with art and advice.

It’s run as a collaboration between Haringey and Islington councils, and Streets Kitchen, a grassroots group which provides food and clothing for the homeless community.

Alongside the fun are also services. Within the first hour of the festival, I’m told, 20 people got a diabetes check and there’s a van doing Covid vaccines.

As well as music, free food and hot drinks were on offer. Image: Streets Kitchen

Ian Parsons has just had his fourth jab when I meet him. Parsons, who used to be homeless, still makes use of a lot of the services on offer here.

“It was Streets Kitchen that helped me get back on my feet. I still go every Friday and I’ve made a lot of friends,” he says.

“Services have been cut by the government, so it’s hard for ex-homeless people like myself who are trying to access services. The Streets Kitchen hub was able to point me in the right direction.”

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He adds that mental health services would be a good addition to the festival: “It’s been good here. There should be more being done for the homeless.”

Free haircuts were on offer – but not for all. Image: Streets Kitchen

So how did a festival for the homeless come to be? Gill Taylor, who works for Haringey Council and has been involved since the start, explains.

“This is our fifth year which is amazing,” she says. “It’s grown every year, and every year new organisations and activities happen. It feels like it’s growing its own magic, which I really like about it. Every year more people who we’re supporting in our hostels come”

Most festivals manage to wind up a few locals – but usually after they’ve happened. Streets Fest, Taylor says, faced opposition before it had begun.

“The first year the community were nervous – homeless festival, is it going to attract bad things? Beyond that there were concerns it was making light of something serious. Our response to that was that we absolutely have to,” she says.

“It is serious. Every day in the life of someone who’s sleeping rough is difficult and this is an opportunity to let loose, have some food, talk to people and have a nice time and not feel ashamed. We really wanted to push back on that idea that homelessness is something people should feel ashamed of.

“Let’s celebrate the fact there’s an incredible culture of support and solidarity among the community.”

The community’s concerns, says Taylor, have melted away. And looking around, it’s far more sedate than any other festival I’ve ever been to.

The volunteers behind Streets Fest before they set up. Image: Streets Kitchen

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Dotted around, people are dancing in front of DJs (there’s a mix of Public Enemy and the Chemical Brothers) while others sit on the grass and eat food. 

I walk over to a tent where a big drawing with “Haringey” on it has been taped to a table. There are coloured pens inviting people to draw on it and Mitchell Ceney, an associate with Arts & Homelessness International, explains that it’s a visual way for attendees to explain what’s going wrong in the housing crisis.

While Ceney was homeless, a hostel in Westminster with an art room helped him reconnect with his creativity.

He stresses that the project, and the festival, is a reminder that access to the arts is a human right for all.

“I was always a creative person, I think everybody has it in them to be creative. But you lose touch with the things you actually feel like you’re capable of doing,” he says.

“You get dehumanised, or you don’t have access to materials, or you don’t have the time. You’re that busy trying to survive that creativity is a luxury.”

Maria Michael insisting it’s ‘never too early’ for Christmas trees. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Drawing a series of houses on the paper, Maria Michael insists “it’s never too early” for the Christmas tree she’s put alongside them.

Michael cares for her 31-year-old son and says he should have his own house if it weren’t for the housing crisis.

“Today is very important, because it highlights everything. We’re in 2022, there’s enough land to build enough places for people to live. Why are they not doing it?” she asks.

“It’s good to meet everyone here and find out about the stall and then hopefully the community can highlight the vulnerable. If you don’t know what’s going on, how are you going to help?”

The festival is taking place on the day Kwasi Kwarteng announces the government will get rid of the top rate of income tax, telling the House of Commons: “For too long in this country, we have indulged in a fight over redistribution.”

For Dana Carlin, Haringey Council’s housing chief, this new economic direction could see councils’ already-struggling budgets become unable to provide services, including those that help the homeless.

“What’s very worrying is how is that going to play out?” she says.

“As a local authority are we going to see further cuts? Where’s the investment we desperately need going to come from?”

But with attempts to move the political conversation away from inequality, days like Streets Fest provide a means to remind everybody what’s at stake.

“What’s really important about this event is it says to people who are homeless, we see you, we’re not just walking past you in the street,” Carlin adds.

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