Homelessness is a social taboo. We are all guilty: we avoid the subject, we try to ineffectually help with sharing some cash here and there, but we will always lose the battle due to our desperate lack of knowledge. Indeed, one of Roofless at Referral’s portrait’s tag line summarises this installation’s purpose: “I don’t need money, I need change!”
It is precisely this change that is initiated by Wendy Morris, project manager of Roofless at Referral and member of Gowrie Care, a national organisation supporting people who are, or have been, homeless. This emotive exhibition probes, questions and reforms previous misconceptions about homelessness through presenting real-life stories of those in need.
Exhibition-goers are immediately immersed in the horrors of homelessness at Summerhall’s eerie Old Animal Hospital. Stairs consecutively branded with ‘tomorrow’, ‘yesterday’, and ‘today’ emulate a journey into the unknown. Indeed, such a journey is continued when the ticking of a clock suffocates your senses: time is running out, mimicking the daily struggle of those 36,417 in Scotland in search of temporary accommodation.
Doorways leading off the sinister corridor reveal different individuals’ stories. For one, a Tracey Emin-style hostel bed sits in the corner, surrounded by cigarette butts and waste; the next is a juxtaposition of two picnics, one portraying feelings of homelessness and the other representing what life could be like. A particularly emotive room contained a roofless ‘chicken-hatch’ style house, grafittied with individuals’ poignant stories regarding their homelessness. Cardboard plaques describing joyful stories of previous exhibition-goers surrounded the darkened room, yet juxtaposed with this were the dozens of shoes within the house, portraying the lonely listlessness of the homeless. The marriage of homelessness and contentment demonstrated an underlying message: if we are all capable of sharing the same experiences, why does society stigmatise people as different?
Roofless at Referral stimulated all the senses through the vast array of different artistic mediums: the coldness, the sirens, the haunting music and the physical journey around the exhibition all evoked feelings of utter helplessness. The extended, haunting corridor and the poignant cages, previously used by the Old Animal Hospital, particularly caught the feelings of both imprisonment and isolation.
Expressions in art are indeed generated by life’s circumstances. Robert Bell, a main curator of the exhibition, poignantly remarked that this exhibition is not only about publicising the real stories of the homeless, but also about development on an individual level. Indeed, the exhibition reflects as much about its viewers as it does of those behind such stories.
The real triumph of Roofless at Referral is its ability to transport viewers into such desperate situations. It is with such empathy that understanding is ultimately gained, hopefully then leading to social progress.