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From the streets to the big screen

February 10 2011
Making documentary changed preconceptions, says filmmaker Penny Woolcock

Last month, The Pavement attended the premier of On The Streets, a thought-provoking documentary by acclaimed film director Penny Woolcock that follows the lives of individuals living on the streets of London.

The documentary focuses on the lifestyles and accounts of a handful of homeless people in the capital and, speaking exclusively to The Pavement, Woolcock described it as "a hard film to make emotionally." Woolcock saw the documentary, which she filmed over eight months, as a unique opportunity for homeless people, who are often ignored in mainstream discourse, to "tell their own stories."

When she began filming, Woolcock, like many people, harboured a number of preconceptions about homelessness and the solutions for it. Initially, she assumed that the simple answer was to provide shelter for those in need of it, yet what she experienced showed her that the issue was far more complex. Aside from the daily obstacles that people living on the streets face, such as disturbed sleep, fear of attack, weather conditions and the sheer boredom caused by a lack of things to do during the day, Woolcock notably witnessed the concerning mental health problems of most of the individuals she befriended.

Indeed, nearly all of the people featured in On The Streets have a history of childhood abuse. Two people whom Woolcock met on the streets who have been victims of abuse are Jean and Paul. Jean claims she was raped several times in her past; she now "hears voices". Paul was violently abused as a child, as he revealed to Woolcock when telling her about his self-harming and anger issues.

Woolcock emphasises that the most prevalent way of dealing with homeless people - to simply provide shelter - addresses only one piece of the puzzle. Currently, individuals can be housed in private accommodation in the form of bedsits; however, these are often very far away from the area with which they are familiar and the people they know. In the film, we see Paul attempting to settle into one of these properties; anxious and alone, with no support network, he eventually returns to the streets he knew so well.

Regrettably, this method of housing people is not addressing the real and underlining issues of mental health, which Woolcock thinks is inextricably linked to homelessness. Her experiences on the streets of London have led her to conclude that homeless people need proper care that addresses their emotional states. Putting people in bedsits solves only one part of the overall problem and Woolcock suggests that the government is taking the easy "out of sight, out of mind" approach. She recommends an alternative solution, which would provide individuals with constant psychiatric assistance alongside the provision of semi-independent shelter.

On The Streets raises the harrowing point that we urgently need to find new solutions for re-housing people by focusing on the realistic fact that homelessness, as Woolcock indisputably relays, is "not simply a housing problem, it is a mental health problem too."