Europe’s Unreported Hidden

Posted on 20. June 2013

by Christoph Janosch Delcker

janosch-delcker2At the core of European society, there is an alarming, yet unreported rise of poverty and precarious living conditions. Documentary film maker and FutureLab Europe member Janosch Delcker has recently finished a film about the topic. In this blog post, he gives an insight into the why and how.

Like a fortress, a massive four-stories building stands at the intersection of two major streets in Blackfriars, London. This central neighborhood of London is home to investment banks and financial service companies. “The house used to be a bank,” says Dan, while we walk up the narrow stairs inside of the deserted building. The deep carpet absorbs the sound of our steps; somewhere in the house, I can hear people chatter. It’s the October of 2012, a lose group of youngsters has squatted the building.

A year and a half of research has led me to Dan and this squat in London. We sit down on the floor of a large empty room with high ceilings on the second floor. He is 25 years old, Dan tells me; after graduating from university, he now works as a waiter. It is a minimum-wage job on a zero-hour contract, not enough to pay a housing deposit and to afford rent in London. Therefore, he goes back and forth between living at his new girlfriend’s apartment, and at squats like this one.

A roof over one’s head, but no home

Dan is one of numerous Europeans affected by so-called “hidden homelessness.” In a nutshell, this term describes people who have a roof over their head but no home of their own; they are people who stay with their partners, relatives, or like Dan in squats or other semi-legal housing situations.

Together with my executive producer and FutureLab Europe co-member Marian Cramers, I have recently finished a short documentary titled “The Hidden” about this topic. “Why hidden homelessness?” people ask me.  We wanted to do a film that takes a different approach to the recent economic crisis, and how it has an effect on individuals in our home countries, Germany and the United Kingdom. Then, we came across statistics that showed that in recent years, there has been a rise in homelessness all over Europe, including Germany and the UK.

A threat moving closer to the core of society

This raised our interest. We tried to find the stories behind the numbers, talked to social workers and researchers, and traced down many people affected by the situation. Basically everybody told us they feel there is something happening at the moment, a situation that they feel threatened by.

Homelessness per se is no new phenomenon; neither is hidden homelessness. Traditionally, certain societal risk groups have been particularly endangered of becoming homeless, such as former convicts, foster children, or veterans. However, this “scope of risk groups” has started to broaden in the last couple of years. More people in society now face the option of losing their home, more people fear to become homeless. Why is that? And how could this moment be defined, in which people ‘lose track’ to eventually end up on the streets?

A fluid transition into homelessness

The deeper we got into the topic, the more we understood there is no such moment; the transition into homelessness is fluid. Most of the time, the path to sleeping rough leads through a period of hidden homelessness. People affected by hidden homelessness, however, don’t appear in statistics; they’re the unreported count, the dark figure, “The Hidden.” Society does not take notice of them, because they don’t look like how people would expect a homeless person to look like.

“I don’t think I will end up on the street. But I can see how this could very easily happen to people in a similar situation,” Dan tells me in the squat in London. His situation resembles the story of many other people I have talked to. Dan is an eloquent and smart man, willing to work hard in order to make a living. Yet, his graduate education has not prevented him from falling into a precarious living situation. Now, he says, he doesn’t see a way out; everybody else in a similar situation I have talked to who told me the same thing.

A stigmatized topic

According to the UK based charity “Crisis”, the majority of homeless people can be considered “hidden homeless”. After working on this topic for a couple of years, I have become critical to statistics regarding homelessness. Be this as it may — talk to any person in the field of homelessness or its prevention, I am sure everyone will confirm that hidden homelessness is the most overlooked aspect in regards to homelessness.

There is a reason for that. Hidden homelessness is a stigmatized topic; it seems to be even more of a taboo subject than, for instance, the notion of people sleeping rough.

As a filmmaker I work in a media of visibility; one of the most basic tasks of filmmakers is to unveil things, to make the hidden visible. This proves particularly difficult when working on stigmatized topic. After our research, we were happy to have found a large number of people who trusted us enough to speak about this topic openly in front of a camera. In the end, we decided to include four stories in the film; four stories that we believe illustrate the most important aspects of the topic.

As different as they are, all four of the protagonists are in the process of losing their home, or have already lost their home. “The Hidden” tells the story of Aisha in Birmingham (UK), who ended up living in a temporary housing situation with her two children and her unemployed husband; while we did the interview, Aisha was 7-month pregnant with her third child. The film tells the story of Dagmar, a fallen entrepreneur who stays with a friend at his parents’ basement in Southern Germany, neglecting that at the same time, her apartment 600 kilometers away is being evicted. “The Hidden” tells the story of Biggy in Cologne, Germany, who ended up sleeping rough for years after periods of hidden homelessness, and who is one of the few who successfully managed to return into a conventional lifestyle. And “The Hidden” tells the story of Dan.

An empty building with moulding walls

Only days after we finished shooting, the London police evicted the squat in Blackfriars. I tried to get in touch with Dan, but he didn’t reply to my calls and emails; where he lives now, I don’t know.

From outside, the building in Blackfriars where Dan was staying looks like a fortress; but as soon as you get inside, you realize it is empty, the walls moulding, and the plaster crumbling. It is easy and comfortable to neglect a hidden, stigmatized phenomenon. “It’s like we don’t want to know; and as long as we don’t know we don’t have a problem,” says one of the protagonists in “The Hidden.”

Now that we start to promote our film, people approach me and tell me that they recognize the phenomenon from the film in the world around them. Hidden homelessness is no petty affair, it’s not just a few people staying temporarily with their friends. It’s the story of people who lose everything that matters to them; people who lose their home. The spread of the phenomenon is an alarming indicator for growing social indifference in the core of Europe. It’s about time for society and politicians to recognize this.

This blog post is part of FutureLab Europe Group Project The Hidden.