SP Creative Projects Lead, Adam Steiner, looks back on 5 months of food, fury and creative fun!
The Write & Eat meets Food Union project – a collaboration between The Pod, a Coventry City Council mental health community resource, and Silhouette Press – has now been running for 5 successful months. Following a series of summer creative writing pilots in 2013, we have worked alongside The Pod and an award-winning chef to cook healthy and affordable food that also tastes good and engaging new audiences in creative writing.
How Does It Work?
The set-up is simple: the free sessions are open to everyone and people come to The Pod mid-afternoon, where we utilize the training kitchen space where cook and then eat together in the welcome space of The Pod’s Revive Cafe. Everyone involved works from a series of themed recipes, such as Veggie Blitz, Valentine’s Day and Healthy Ready-Meals (after Jack Monroe) which means that a variety of food is on offer and people are encouraged to work together and pitch-in with other tasks such as washing-up or cleaning down the kitchen area.
Shortly before eating, I run a brief poetry workshop which often yielded interesting work as I encouraged people to work around spur words from the recipes and to think about different aspects of the cooking.
Why Food Union?
The Pod project aims to work with members of the community to build their capacity and resilience in cooking healthy and tasty food on a budget.
The Pod recognised the growing pressure of welfare reform changes upon everyone who is in receipt of benefits as the system gradually changes into the potentially confusing Universal Credit scheme – in particular the impact this is having upon the people they work with who often live with severe or enduring mental ill health. A strong emphasis is placed upon the sustainability of the food, we often work from a budget of £40 of locally-sourced ingredients, the majority of which is bought fresh from Coventry indoor market, and we feed on average 20-30 people (a cost of less than £2 per head).
The project has provided different people different benefits or opportunities: some people wished to expand their cooking skills by producing cost-effective food that they can produce en-masse and store as an alternative to unhealthy and over-priced ready-meals; others simply attend to enjoy a sociable cooking environment or learn more about writing poetry from challenging themes. Food Union is currently evolving to work more closely with local volunteers, universities and the community.
You can browse more of the individual session themes on the Write & Eat project page, here is a quick overview of some of the food and poetry produced so far:
Today, I met several homeless people in Coventry to gauge interest in a future SP project. The classic question levelled at such ventures, usually from people who aren’t homeless themselves, is why would anyone living on the streets want to waste their time writing? Surely they have more important things on their mind; where there next meal is coming from, where they are going to sleep tonight?
This is undoubtedly true. However, some of the people I met were very keen and interested in telling their version of the realities of homeless life: being trapped in a cycle of deprivation and minor debts (amounts that would seem trivial to most people) that sees the homeless endlessly shuttled from council accommodation to sheltered housing and hostels, always on the lowest rungs of the property ladder. Homeless life sounds hard and that’s because it is.
The one thing most homeless people do have lots of is time. Most of us trudge restlessly through our gainful 9-5, from home to work and back again, unwilling to reflect on the alternative. There are few constructive outlets for homeless people beyond volunteering and every day is a genuine struggle to survive, especially as winter approaches.
For the majority of us, who have never been homeless, we harbour a great deal of misconceptions about what homeless life is really like, stigmas range from widespread drug or alcohol abuse, mental health issues and no desire to work: effectively self-inflicted destitution. These are elements of homelessness that apply to only a minority of homeless people I met.
The closest most of us ever get to learning about homelessness is often third-hand, either from the mainstream media (who exploit stats and are prone to demonise) and the memoirs of authors such as George Orwell who step in and out of homelessness as a social experiment, always able to return back to their “normal” life (The Big Issue provides a much needed antidote). As my SP colleague once pointed-out, as a society, we often choose not to see people sleeping rough, we expect little from them and rarely come into direct contact, this adds to the invisibility that hides the problem of homelessness.
Some homeless people I spoke to wanted the chance to explore the possibilities of poetry or create stories from scratch, but most wanted to talk, and to write, more about their lives, day-to-day, and provide a genuine account of how each homeless person has a different experience of falling into poverty, and how they begin their journey of recovery.
I was challenged on the “use” of both creative and factual writing, and, forced to think on my feet, admitted to the experimental nature of the project (particularly the fact it might not work at all), but I countered by saying that writing, in all its forms can be a rewarding form of self-expression and communicating one’s view of the world to others.
We all depend on words and improving your writing, and being able to write well can open-up many surprising doors and helps to make a person more employable. Lots of people who aren’t homeless enjoy sufficient financial and physical security to write as a purely creative endeavour, as a (sometimes) pleasurable end in itself – why shouldn’t homeless people be offered access to the same creative support? Many people assume that the answer will always be “No” and that homeless people have nothing to say. Like any experiment, this project will probably benefit some more than others, but who cares? It might some people to rebuild their self-confidence, spark a new relationship with writing and reading and encourage people who have already decided that they can’t write, and are not expected to, to have a go and try – whatever writing comes out of the project, I feel the work invested by participants will help to humanise homeless people, educate the public and turn the tide on a popular stigma and social exclusion.
Why creative writing for homeless people?
Well, why not?