Kerry, now 36, has endured three periods of homelessness in her life. All of them pushed her to the brink. As part of the CALM x 1854 Homeless Truths commission, a new series of Polaroids sheds light on her experiences
“Today I am a strong, confident and resilient woman,” says Kerry. “But it hasn’t always been that way. I had to go through a lot to get to where I am now.”
Today, Kerry has a place to call home and is pursuing new-found interests in interior design and photography. But the trauma of her past still blights the present. “There are times when my mental health is not in a good place,” she says. “Little triggers set off my PTSD. But when I think of what I’ve been through, I’m in a good place. If I’m having a bad day, I have to pinch myself and remember that I have had worse than this.”
Kerry is one of five individuals who, over the last few months, have been working alongside documentary photographer Inzajeano Latif as part of a project organised by Studio 1854 in collaboration with Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). CALM is a UK-based charity that works to prevent suicide through encouraging and facilitating positive discussion about mental health. Through the medium of photography, the project offers an insight into the lives of those who have experienced homelessness in London. Kerry was given a Polaroid camera and tasked with creating a series of images that speaks of her experiences. Working closely with Kerry, Latif too created his own body of work.
“I had a lot of friends and we would all help each other. One person always knew somewhere we could go; we’d sofa-surf and otherwise sleep on buses”
Kerry was just 14 when she was first homeless. She lived on the streets of south-east London until the age of 16, surviving among other children without homes. Kerry grew up in a dysfunctional and abusive household. “My parents had such a toxic relationship and it affected me,” she says. “I don’t think they realise how much it affected me.” Having no home felt safer than being in that environment. So Kerry left.
“There were a lot of us, all around the same age, on the streets. So I felt safe,” she says. “I had a lot of friends and we would all help each other. One person always knew somewhere we could go; we’d sofa-surf and otherwise sleep on buses.” Kerry was streetwise from a young age. Despite only being 14, she was forced to grow up quickly and fend for herself. “I was a bit of a survivor,” she says. “I didn’t have any money but I survived. There was always a way.” In 2002, at the age 16, Kerry gave birth to her son. Initially they were accommodated in a crèche, before moving to permanent housing. It was then when “I tried to put my troubled lifestyle behind me,” says Kerry. “In my little dysfunctional life, it was the first time that I had stability.”
In wanting to tell her story – the highs and lows; the past and the present – Kerry’s photographs are eclectic. Nature was a comfort when she was homeless and blue skies and towering trees feature prominently. Another photograph looks down upon a drain. “I took that because that’s how I have felt at points in my life,” says Kerry. “When you hit rock bottom you feel as if you are beneath everything.” There are also glimpses of the person Kerry is today: spreads of interior design books, upcycled furniture, and her garden adorned with decorations.
The photographs that Kerry took, however, are just one half of the project. The other, a series of portraits taken by Latif, show Kerry from another perspective. Guided by Kerry, the portraits were taken in places that bear significance. “Your input in that was so deep,” says Latif. In 2012, after years in an abusive relationship, Kerry was evicted from her home following continuous domestic-related incidents and disturbances. Initially she slept in her car, eventually being accommodated in a hostel. Kerry took Latif to the room in the hostel in which she stayed for two years. From a superficial level, the hostel is stark and uninviting – bars guard the bathroom window, the rooms barely furnished – but it represents something far deeper for Kerry.
“The time I spent there was the worst in my whole life,” she says. “I couldn’t see any way out. There were some days when I felt I couldn’t carry on. I was very suicidal.” The project marked the first time that Kerry has returned to the hostel since she left. “Going back, my heart sank,” she says. “It was emotional, but actually quite powerful. Returning gave me some sort of closure. It almost felt like I was having an outer body experience being there again, just visualising what I was going through.” Latif was aware of the rawness of emotion that day; it is evident in the photographs he took. “I remember taking your portrait there,” he says. “You had this real look that said ‘I have overcome.’ I really got a sense of that. You stood tall.”
Today, Kerry’s mental health continues to be a battle. She suffers from depression and receives support from a doctor and mental health services. But it was the period living at the hostel when she was at her lowest. “All I know is that, emotionally, I never want to go back to that place again,” she says. “I got myself into a rut and I couldn’t get out of it.” In its work to prevent suicide in the UK, CALM places great importance on talking openly about mental health. “It can be really tough to find the words to explain what you’re going through when you’re struggling,” says Simon Gunning, CEO of CALM. “It can be daunting to start a conversation about it but, at CALM, we also know that it has loads of potential benefits — most importantly increased support and reassurance. And when you’re deep in anxiety or depression, this extra support can really make a vital difference.”
“Those were dark days for me, but I have come through”
– Kerry Blake
A turning point came for Kerry when she started counselling. “I was having intense therapy for all the trauma I had experienced with an ex-partner,” she explains. It was through these sessions that Kerry was introduced to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, initially being offered a place on a course for women who had experienced domestic violence. She later successfully applied for a job at the organisation. Kerry worked at the trust for several years in a number of roles: first as a receptionist, then working alongside the founder’s PA, and eventually as a motivational speaker. “I went to schools in south-east London and would talk about my story,” says Kerry. “I was helping teenagers who were going through similar experiences to me.It was a happy point in my life,” she says. “I was single and working and felt like I had a purpose in life again.”
Kerry met a new partner in 2015, but by 2018, she saw “the same abusive pattern” occurring. Kerry’s attendance at work began to wane, and eventually she left her job. “There was so much going on with that relationship,” she says, “that it became harder and harder to commit to my work.” The situation continued to spiral: “Long story short… I was incarcerated for three years. And him 12,” says Kerry. It was a result of that relationship – of the manipulation and coerciveness – that Kerry says led to her time in prison.
Kerry lost everything as a result. In 2019, when she was released from prison, she found herself homeless for a third time. However, “instead of dwelling on things,” says Kerry, “I was committed to educating and bettering myself.” It was in prison that Kerry discovered an interest in photography and interior design, achieving a diploma in the latter. “They are passions that I have found later in life,” she says. “Since I was young I have dedicated myself to others, so I didn’t realise that I had interests until I spent a lot of time on my own.”
Many of the issues Kerry has experienced in life stem from her history of abusive relationships. A recurring loss of control has partially fuelled an enjoyment of creative pursuits. It is one of the reasons that she is so taken with photography. “I enjoy it because I like the feeling of being in control,” she says. “Whatever I photograph is entirely down to me; nobody is telling me what to do or what not to do. It is my own little thing that I can do on my own, and capture how I am feeling.”
When Kerry and Latif returned to the hostel as part of the project, they came across a man staying in the room where Kerry herself had once lived. “That whole scene was so powerful,” says Latif. The man’s situation resonated with Kerry. “I could see in his eyes that he was in a lot of pain,” she says. “He was in the same position as I was in. He had little kids in that hostel. I remember my son running around that tiny room.” Kerry was struck with compassion and understanding. She saw glimmers of herself in him, a certain sadness and resignation. “I told him that I used to be in this bedroom, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “Those were dark days for me, but I have come through.”
Each of the participants’ projects will be published on 1854.photography this week. They each received compensation for their work.
Café Art, an organisation that empowers homeless artists inLondon, and Evolve, a housing and support charity, were both instrumental in finding and supporting the individuals that took part in this project. CALM has also helped support the participants throughout the project and will continue to support them after the campaign.