The World's First Museum Of Homelessness Opens In London

These stories of homeless people as admirable survivors may cheer visitors, but the museum's first exhibit is also unsettling.

The World's First Museum Of Homelessness Opens In London

Number of people sleeping rough on Britain's streets rose 26% in 2022

The stories told at London's new Museum of Homelessness make frighteningly clear that homelessness can potentially happen to anyone.

One person whose experience is relayed in the inaugural exhibit - entitled 'How to Survive The Apocalypse' - was once an affluent finance worker in his early sixties, living in comfort in Japan.

While his full journey isn't revealed, the man eventually found himself recovering from cancer treatment while homeless on the streets of London. Wearing handouts of donated clothing, he kept warm one winter in a fleece that - he reports without apparent bitterness - came emblazoned with the name of his former employer.

This is one of the compelling stories told at the new museum, which opens Friday, founded as a roving project a decade ago but now settling into its first permanent site in an Edwardian groundsman's lodge on the edge of North London's Finsbury Park.

The museum's opening is timely to say the least. Across the UK 290,000 households sought help for homelessness in 2022, the most recent data show, with the number of people placed in temporary accommodation having doubled over the preceding decade. Many people still can't access help, and the number of people sleeping rough on Britain's streets rose 26% in the same year.

With rents rising faster than core inflation and an acute cost of living crisis only just showing signs of abating, things are only getting worse. In the final three months of 2023 alone, the number of people being made homeless rose 16% nationwide. The people whose experiences this museum explores are not only misunderstood and frequently overlooked, but they are becoming more statistically significant every year.

Offering a blend of storytelling, education and advocacy focused on the experiences of homeless people, the museum's unconventional setup goes beyond its subject alone. Rather than a collection of items in glass cases, it offers an interactive experience where volunteers share the stories behind the objects in its collection - all amassed through donations from their homeless former owners - to small groups of visitors, using the exact words of its former keepers. The result is not just a powerful, humane insight into homeless people's experiences but also - with its collection including objects as mundane as shopping carts and plastic bags - a challenge to received ideas of what museums should display.

The objects included in the museum's first exhibition possess meanings that belie their modest appearance. Each object's narrator reveals a striking backstory: A rough, handled wooden staff repaired with duct tape, for example, was actually grabbed as an impromptu replacement for crutches that a homeless sufferer of chronic back pain had left on the bus. Left scarcely able to walk on the curbside, the stick's former owner found a piece of discarded coppiced wood in a front garden, and found that the rounded bole at its end fitted his hand perfectly.

Something grabbed in desperation turned out to be a highly useful, even reassuring piece of equipment. Initially grabbed as a stop-gap to get him off the curb, the stick became something its new owner started using constantly. Ultimately, he even adorned its vaguely head-shaped handle with a glass eye, an embellishment he felt showed the influence of his uncanny favorite novel, Iain Banks's the Wasp Factory. Explored more closely, this simple piece of wood's transition from waste item to tool and companion shows how even a simple object can become somebody's anchor, and reveals sophisticated associations that don't fit well with common perceptions of the homeless as lost and abject.

These stories of homeless people as admirable survivors may cheer visitors, but the museum's first exhibit is also unsettling. Working on the cliff edge on which many Londoners' security is already teetering, the museum's staff see the people whose stories they share as role models for a future where many people's lives may become yet more precarious. A future state of perma-crisis, a form of apocalypse in the museum's words, could mean that the practices keeping homeless people relatively safe - resilience, mutual support and community - will be ever more indispensable.

"We want to flip the script a little bit about what people say about homelessness," says the museum's Operations & Production Manager Adam Hemmings. "There's a lot of sensationalism and pity, a lot of victim narratives around homelessness. What we're doing with this show is saying actually there's quite a lot of wisdom, there's quite a lot of creativity. And you know, when the apocalypse does come, it will be people affected by these issues who have a lot of the answers."