On The Stigma Of Homelessness And The Dilemma Of The Creative Non-Conformist

The other day I went to a birthday party here in London. I knew the host through a mutual friend in the adventure world, upon whose fringes I seem to drift.

The guest-list read like a who’s who of young Brits who’d devoted themselves to exploring and asking questions of the world. It was just the kind of crowd to whom I could field some burning questions I’d feel rather uncomfortable bringing up anywhere else.

What I heard in response was… surprising.

As mentioned in my last update, I’m in the UK to work on two new films based on two expeditions last year with my sometime partner-in-crime Leon McCarron. As I also mentioned, my wife Tenny and I have embarked on a new, location-independent lifestyle. While she will remain in Australia, I’m now based temporarily in London for the express purpose of knuckling down with Leon and a small team of post-production gurus and getting these two films made.

Yet spending three months in London is rather incompatible with low-budget, location-independent living.

Which presents me with something of a dilemma. (Another example of adventure versus the status quo, if you will.)

London epitomises capitalist society. There are systems in place to equate every aspect of existence with the earning and spending of money. Failure to fit in is, effectively, a punishable offence. Take housing, for example.

Were I to take my meagre earnings and attempt to house myself in London in an orthodox manner, even temporarily, I would be rejected by agents and landlords due to having no regular, dependable, provable income.

The alternative is to rent a hotel room, hostel or other such short-term accommodation, which, when we’re talking about two or three months, would end up costing a small fortune – another penalty for failing to provide a private landlord with a guaranteed long term income directly derived from my own basic human need for shelter.

If I wished to break out of the cycle of going to work in order to pay for a place to sleep so I could go to work, I would need to buy a property outright. But property is ludicrously expensive, precisely because of the profit that can be made from owning it. So I’d take out a mortgage, which would equate to paying rent until I was too old to remember what my dreams of freedom looked like.

No matter which way I look at it, my options all boil down to the same thing: putting my ability to generate money front and centre simply in order to provide for my basic needs.

This is the pattern that emerges from the culmination of the social, cultural and economic pressures present in a place like London. It is a pattern that is desperately hard to break.

There are few institutional provisions in place for anyone who chooses to ignore these pressures, whether in order to make a different, inevitably less measurable kind of contribution to society, or to opt out of society altogether. Those that do exist – social housing and other forms of state welfare – are designed to cajole the offender back into conformity, to adopt a more ‘proper’ way of life. Even the very name given to the public funds available to cover basic costs of living – “Job-Seekers’ Allowance” – has been carefully chosen to ensure that there can be no doubt as to the ultimate social obligation of its recipient.

What gets me upset – partly because I’m amongst those in the firing line – is what society sacrifices when it focuses exclusively on financial as opposed to other types of economics. We push away and repress a vast number of potential artists, dreamers, idealists and storytellers who might bring more colour and spice to our lives, without whose influence and participation in our communities and contributions to our culture we risk losing sight of what matters altogether. How many of our younger selves had their creative energies sucked out of them as we innocently trod our institutionally-imposed career paths because of the fear of what would happen if we didn’t?

For those that do resist, the surest survival strategy comes via the familiar rhetoric of buying into the same capitalistic, market-based model that sidelined them in the first place. Then there are those who’ll go all out in opposition to the system and create an anger-fuelled counterculture of resistance, creating more noise than progress.

But there seems to be no clear path for those who simply want to make a positive, creative, self-determined contribution to society without deferral (and probable submission) to the whims of the market.

To me, this state of affairs has always felt fundamentally skewed. It’s one of the main reasons I originally abandoned Britain, aged 23, with no desire to return.

Back at the party, I looked around and I saw a room full of people who had, one way or the other, broken this pattern. These were people who’d taken action. How? I wondered. Sure, this was the adventure and exploration crowd, and there would undoubtedly be a well-heeled few for whom money never had and never would be a barrier. That they’d chosen this path was commendable. But they’d be a minority. Most would have had no such starting point, and would have had to combine passion and initiative and patience to make things work.

I started talking to people, about how I was here to work on a project I believed was important, but was already feeling the pressure of existing in a financially-squeezed, highly-strung social environment.

In the most concrete terms, my primary concerns were about simply finding a way to live for three months in a city in which I quite simply could not afford to rent a place of my own. I’d put out a message on Facebook to my close friends and had received numerous kind offers of couches to sleep on. But in the longer term, my options were far from clear.

What I heard in response was inspiring.

The lengths to which the adventurous folk around me had gone (or were going) to subsist in London was impressive – often ludicrous. One high-profile adventurer (who shall not be named) claimed to have slept in more than 50 different parks in London over the years. He named some of his favourites for good measure. During his first three years in the city, he said, he’d lived rent-free, using the showers in leisure centres and no-frills gyms, working in coffee shops and libraries, and otherwise going about his days quite normally.

Another chap I spoke to said that in the summertime he spent 3 or 4 nights a week sleeping rough, despite having a full-time job and a place of his own. He just enjoyed it, he said, and it meant he had loads of time in the evenings after work to meet up with his friends all over London. Again, he had his favourite spots. (I continued taking mental notes.)

Yet another man-of-the-moment in adventure circles told me that he was, in fact, heading directly from the party to his van, which he’d parked in Putney, and in the back of which he intended to sleep that night. He too shared his tips for ‘camping’ in parked vehicles, where it was possible to find permit-free parking spots, and common pitfalls to avoid as a newcomer to four-wheeled tramping.

In fact, to my surprise, everywhere I turned I seemed to bump into someone who had done or was doing exactly as I was planning to do! That I’d finally found a crowd amongst whom being homeless was socially acceptable was an enormous surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. But I’d always assumed I was the only one in the adventure world who considered taking ‘extreme’ measures to keep doing what I was doing without selling out to the corporate world. I guess I was wrong.

One thing that didn’t come up during any of my conversations was squatting. Despite the risks and the stigma, I knew that this was an option. I knew people who’d done it, and others who were still doing it. But something about the idea didn’t seem to ring true to this group as much as stealth camping around London did. I wondered why that was.

I left the party and cycled back to where I was staying with a friend. Would it be possible to live in London and work on this project without actually having a home? I wondered. Surely I’d made camp in enough random places in the world to put those skills to use in this particular city? Would anyone notice what I was doing? Could I even learn to enjoy the challenge of pulling it off?

What’s the worst that could happen?

Ho hum. I guess we’ll see, won’t we?

Do you think our ability to earn money should dictate our options in life? What would you do or create if you were entirely free from financial pressures? How would you approach living in a city like London without a home of your own?