At the age of 70, Dee spent 10 months homeless in London. As part of the CALM x 1854 Homeless Truths commission, her new series of Polaroids reflects on life then and now
For 10 months, Dee lived in London without any accommodation. Before then, homelessness was not something she had ever contemplated; at least not as something she would experience first hand. “Life has always been good to me,” she says. “Happy marriage, now of 53 years. A great family. Plenty of grandchildren and, at the time, a well-paid job.”
Dee is originally from South Africa. Her husband and most of her family still live there today. She moved to the UK in 2009, after violent crime in her native region caused her to feel unsafe. For many years, Dee’s new life in the UK was good: she worked as a live-in carer for private clients, and earned a good living. Her clients were often “wealthy and would spoil the hell out of me,” she says. “If they went to the opera, I went to the opera.” Dee had minimal living costs and was able to send money to her family back in South Africa.
“[Her images] make complete sense in terms of who Dee is as a person.”
In 2016, Dee’s life drastically changed. An accident at work caused her to break her thumb; an injury so severe it required surgery. She was no longer able to work, and suddenly became unemployed. Soon she was homeless. Initially she slept on people’s sofas, but felt like an intruder doing so. Unable to get support, Dee spent the next 10 months living in London without any accommodation. “I worked out things to do and found nature and parks to sit in; museums and art galleries to spend my days,” she says. “Occasionally I would sit in Westminster Cathedral after the service and read my book in a quiet corner.” She also volunteered three nights a week, feeding others who were experiencing homelessness. “I was never bored,” she says. “If I wasn’t sitting in a park, I would be in a museum. There was always somewhere to go and something to do.”
Dee is one of several individuals who, over the last few months, have been working with photographer Inzajeano Latif as part of a commission organised by Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – a UK-based charity that works to prevent suicide – in collaboration with 1854. The project offers an insight into homelessness in London through the medium of photography. Under Latif’s mentorship, Dee spent three months developing a series of photographs documenting her life. At the same time, Latif created a body of work of his own.
Creativity is something that comes naturally to Dee. “I have always done art,” she says. “Painting, sewing and handcrafting. Anything creative.” Throughout her life she has always taken photographs, and was keen to be involved in the project. “Inza was the inspiration for taking part,” she says. “I wanted to learn all I could from him: soak it in like a sponge and see what tips I could pick up.”
Dee’s resulting Polaroids almost appear as two series: a serene woodland surrounding a lake – the reflections of the sky in the water playing with perspective; reality versus imagination – and a busy train station. The two may appear polar opposites, almost conflicting: the quiet of nature – a vast pool of water, completely still – juxtaposed with the haste and transience of a busy London train station. But, as Latif recognises, “they make complete sense in terms of who Dee is as a person.”
“Nature is my sanity,” explains Dee. “Whenever I need to relax, I go to nature. The clouds speak to me; I just sit back and look at them.” In the 10 months that Dee was living on the streets of London, nature was her solace.
Of all Dee’s photographs, for Latif one in particular stands out: a cordoned off park bench. “Dee knew that the fence was recent,” he says. “She used to sleep on the bench to pass the time. She felt safe there.” Dee remembers the photograph: “I took Inza to the bench in Kensington Gardens that I found huge sanity in,” she explains, ”but they have now cordoned it off. My favourite bench has become an unattainable object.”
The other photographs in the series centre around a London train station: passing moments, the curves of a platform, the blur of a shuddering carriage. The station is important to Dee. “It is transition. It is movement,” she says. “The station was comfort when I was on the streets. It was warmth. It was protection. The station is part of me.” Dee has a Freedom Pass (a travel card that grants people aged 60 and over free use of London transport) and, for the period in which she was homeless, she’d use the pass to “go somewhere and all the way back again.”
“Being homeless was an awful experience, but life’s lessons make one a better person and more considerate for others in the same position”
– Dee Alison
“Too often [people experiencing homelessness] are ignored and walked past. Made to feel like they’re ‘other’ or people to be pitied. To have their humanity taken away from them,” says Simon Gunning, CEO of CALM. “By asking the participants to shoot how they feel and share the reality of their life with us, we wanted to turn this point of view around. This is their experience through their own eyes. Photography allows them to give us an honest and intimate view of their lives — and it also empowers them to express themselves.”
Today, life is much better for Dee. She moved into her current housing four years ago with just her clothes, a chair and a carpet. Over time, she has been able to make it home. Art and photography continue to be an important part of her life, and while her environment and situation have changed drastically over the years, her love of creativity has remained constant. For the last five years she also has volunteered for a night charity, feeding and supporting those experiencing homlessness in central London.
“Being homeless was an awful experience,” she reflects. “But life’s lessons make one a better person and more considerate for others in the same position. Anyway, I am not homeless anymore; I am self-managing now. I am waiting until 17 May when the galleries reopen. I will be standing outside the doors!”
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.