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Housing

These striking photos of homeless people show the reality of life on Britain’s streets

Photographer Marc Davenant’s six-year project aims to “bring out the humanity” of people experiencing homelessness. His photos are set to be shown off at an exhibition next month before being turned into a book.

A photographer has spent six years taking stark and poignant portraits of people experiencing homelessness in Britain to document the human impact of the housing crisis.

Marc Davenant’s Outsiders project is now set to be turned into a book and will become a travelling exhibition from next month in a bid to challenge perceptions of homelessness and put the spotlight on those who experience it.

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Ann (left) is pictured on Oxford Street in London shortly after getting engaged to partner Dave. She had been street homeless for over 15 years when Marc Davenant took her photo. Image: Marc Davenant
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“Sometimes you can spend an entire day on the street with nobody even acknowledging you exist” Marc captured ths shot of Jelly and his dog Banter at The Lanes in Brighton. Image: Marc Davenant

He said: “A big part of the project was about bringing out the individuality and the humanity of the individuals I was photographing. 

“I’m trying to show people with dignity, it’s really easy to get photographs of people looking miserable and like victims. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted it to really just bring out the resilience of these people.”

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Davenant was inspired by the documentary photos of Nick Hedges, whose monochrome framing of the housing crisis in the late Sixties and early Seventies played an influential role in the early years of housing charity Shelter.

Like Hedges, Davenant’s project ended up chronicling a defining time for homelessness in the UK.

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His black-and-white photos cover the tail-end of the Conservative government’s period of austerity when official figures showed rough sleeping hit its height in 2017. The shots also cover the pandemic when the Everyone In scheme brought hope that street homelessness could be ended for good.

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Now Davenant believes things are set to get worse. “I think things have changed. I think we’re heading for a massive crisis of homelessness and substandard housing.”

Big Issue vendors feature prominently in Davenant’s look at street homelessness. Veteran London vendor Will Herbert takes a starring role in the exhibition, and not for the first time – a portrait of his was previously featured in Bryan Adams’ photography book Homeless.

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It’s not the first time London Big Issue vendor Will Herbert has been pictured for a photography project. Bryan Adams also captured his portrait for his book Homeless. Image: Marc Davenant
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Big Issue vendor Paul was one of the first people captured in the project when Marc took this photo outside John Lewis on London’s Oxford Street back in 2016. Image: Marc Davenant
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Marc captured Big Issue vendor Brian and his dogs in Soho back in 2016. Image: Marc Davenant

Herbert’s not the only vendor captured in the project. Davenant’s photos feature Paul, a vendor who sold outside John Lewis on London’s Oxford Street, as well as Soho vendor Brian.

The Outsiders project tells stories of how some people feel ignored on the streets, like Arthur who was photographed in Manchester in 2019. He said: “All you see in the faces of the public is ‘tramp’, ‘failure’, ‘disgrace’. That’s what you get on the street. All it would take is some understanding and a kind word to lift the day but nothing. I didn’t want their money just someone to ask if I was ok.”

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Veteran rough sleeper John said he felt safer sleeping on the streets in Newcastle in 2021. Image: Marc Davenant
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Inreece is photographed in the damp room she calls home in London. Image: Marc Davenant

John who had spent 25 years on the street when he was photographed in Newcastle in 2021. “I’ve been street homeless for most of my life since I was 15,” he told Davenant. “I don’t use hostels, or sleep in Gateshead as it’s too dangerous, I’ve been attacked in hostels too many times and threatened with knives. It’s safer on the street in Newcastle.”

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Davenant’s project goes beyond the streets. He partnered with Shelter to tell the stories of those living in temporary accommodation and unsafe, filthy and unsuitable housing.

That’s the reality of life for Fatima, who is pictured staring out of the broken window in her freezing flat in London’s Manor Park. Davenant recalled how water poured through the ceiling whenever it rained and how Fatima was forced to live with the conditions as she could not afford to switch on the heating. 

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Focusing on homelessness meant focusing on substandard housing too. Fatima was living in a London flat with a broken window and could not afford heating. Water also poured through the ceiling whenever it rained. Image: Marc Davenant
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For Michelle, pictured in Manchester in 2019, homelessness has left life-long scars. She said: ““I grew up in children’s homes, I had abusive parents and I was abused as a child. From the age of 11, I was in and out of institutions and care homes all different ones in Stockport and in secure units. From the age of 13 I began sleeping on the streets, sleeping in the bin sheds on the Offerton Estate. I was running away from the care system. I coped by taking substances, first alcohol then cannabis, then whizz and heroin to numb the pain away.” Image: Marc Davenant

The photographer says his photos opened his eyes to the scale of the issue and are a searing indictment of the policy of successive governments on street homelessness, substandard housing conditions and the individual impact of the hostile environment.

“It was when I started to dig into it that I realised that I didn’t know anything about the subject,” he told The Big Issue.

“It became bigger, became about homelessness in the round. It wasn’t just street homelessness, it was also sofa surfing and people living in substandard housing and the project grew as I was doing it. It became a big national project rather than a relatively small, local documentary project.”

The Outsiders Project has now become a small touring exhibition showing off Davenant’s photos and will be heading to Photo North Festival from May 7-9.

A book is slated to follow in August, published by Bluecoat Press, after the project hit its £10,000 target on Kickstarter.

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