‘This is our truth’: the world’s first graphic novel made by homeless people
It is easy to look down on homeless people,” says former rough sleeper Mitchel. “We’re not taught to respect each other in society and if we can have a reason to disregard people, it is like a default to ignore others.”
Mitchel slept on the streets of central London for almost three years, and has also spent time in night shelters and hostels. Now he’s one of the contributors to what is being described as the world’s first graphic novel created by people affected by homelessness, and hopes the book will help change perceptions and encourage empathy.
The Book of Homelessness shares participants’ life stories through their own drawings, poetry and photography. It’s the brainchild of Marice Cumber, founder of youth homelessness charity Accumulate, which describes itself as “the art school of the homeless”.
“I did not want it to be a graphic novel about somebody who is homeless that has been created by someone who is not homeless,” she says. “The core of this was that we had people telling their own story in the form they wanted to tell it.”
Participants decided the book should explain the journey to homelessness; individuals’ stories include testimonies of rape, sexual abuse, drug misuse and family breakdown.
Accumulate launched a crowdfunding initiative for the book in September last year, and creative workshops with the participants – who were all living in hostels, shelters or temporary accommodation – started in January. Tutors, some of whom had personal experience of homelessness, spent time building trust with the participants and help them to feel confident and supported to tell their stories.
Mitchel found the process of putting together his contribution a bittersweet experience. “Sometimes, looking back at where I had been before things had gone wrong was sad,” he says. “But also looking back at where I’d come from – I was shoplifting, in and out of prison, I used to sleep in a tent – it was good to see that I’d moved forward.”
And hearing the other participants’ stories – including a woman’s account of fleeing violence in Africa – was poignant and humbling, Mitchel adds.
“There are so many misconceptions and so many stereotypes about people who are homeless and they wanted to say this is not the truth: there is a different truth here,” says Cumber.
Book contributor Amalia, who was homeless after becoming estranged from her family, says working on her story was therapeutic.
“It took me out of the hostel and it got me out of a few mental health difficulties,” she says. “I have been able to feel more socially connected to people.” She hopes the book will “change the narrative of homelessness”.
Accumulate launched in 2013 after Cumber set up an arts festival in her north London neighbourhood, which included a photography workshop in a hostel. Seeing how the workshop built participants’ confidence and positivity sowed the seed for the charity, which now works in hostels across the city and has diversified to include workshops on fashion, podcasting and ceramics.
During lockdown, Accumulate continued its work by posting art kits to participants at their hostels and hosting video calls. Hostels are isolating places, says Cumber, and demand for the charity’s support soared during lockdown, with kits sent to more than 60 different places.
Accumulate also provides scholarships to talented individuals to study at Ravensbourne University in south London. So far, 20 Accumulate participants – including Mitchel and Amalia – have taken the access course, and eight have gone on to study for degrees at university.
All profits from The Book of Homelessness will shared between its creators and Accumulate. If the entire print run sells out, says Cumber, it will fund another scholarship for next year.
Amalia, who started her course this autumn, describes Accumulate as “a hub of hope” and says having a creative outlet has helped her move on from her past.
“I am finally in a safe space and it is my space,” she says. “I’m not in that hostel any more. It has been a battle, though. Just because you live in a hostel or you have experience of homelessness, that doesn’t makes you less of a human. It makes you stronger, it enables you to move in a different trajectory towards your dreams.”
She has ambitions to publish her own book of poetry and build a career designing websites for black and minority ethnic-run businesses.
And Mitchel says Accumulate has changed his life. “It has given me confidence and positivity,” he says. “This book and the other artwork I’ve done have given me something to be proud of.”