Brush past

Karl Hyde of Underworld is using an empty
Manchester shop to tell the stories of homeless people

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Stories of homelessness are to be put centre stage at Manchester International Festival.

Musicians Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of Underworld have worked with people who have experienced homelessness to develop Manchester Street Poem – a pioneering live art installation in an empty city centre shop.

The nine-day event aims to bring to life the stories of people who are normally stereotyped or ignored – with Hyde covering the walls of the venue with words and phrases drawn from the streets.

Smith, meanwhile, will use fragments and snatches of recordings gathered during interviews at homeless centres to build a compelling soundscape.

Members of the public are invited to visit the space to watch Hyde work – while talking to participants and learning more about homelessness. CCTV cameras will record him throughout, with the footage streamed online.

Hyde says: “I wanted people with experience of homelessness to hijack this project. We can draw people’s attention and write the stories but they are the experts, and can help the wider public understand how to effect change.

“This project is really about finding out answers to the kind of questions my kids would always ask me when they saw people sleeping rough. It bothered me that I couldn’t explain how those people had got there. I wanted to find out who they were and give them a voice.”

Manchester Homeless Charter and Mustard Tree helped to make the project happen, teaming Hyde up with people who had been homeless.

Street Poem examines homelessness from rough sleeping to sofa surfing and temporary accommodation

Underworld are best known for dance anthem Born Slippy but Hyde was an art school graduate before he turned to music and is passionate about the benefits of art for people going through difficult times.

He says: “Places like Mustard Tree and the Booth Centre are doing great work in developing people’s sense of self through art. When things were really bad for me I would sit in the corner of my bedsit, pick up a pencil and draw or make a sculpture out of paper and feel a sense of hope and identity.

“Some of the stories that I’ve found the most profound during this project have been simple tales of people going somewhere warm and clean and welcoming, and making something. One guy made a life-sized sculpture of himself and took it onto the streets, where he took photos of people reacting to it. He said he’d never done art before but that’s amazing. There was nothing and now there’s something.

“That may sound like nothing to people who have jobs and homes but I know that feeling. I know what it feels like to think it’s all over and then to make something and feel alive.”

Jo Wilson, who worked with Underworld on the project, ended up on the streets after leaving prison in 2013. She kicked her 20-year drug habit almost a year ago and now volunteers at the Booth Centre, which provides a day centre for homeless people in Manchester.

She said: “My story is in the project and I’ve been recording other people’s stories. It’s really important to have people who have been homeless involved – otherwise the whole thing would be meaningless.

“I’ve been in my own accommodation now for two years but before I found out about the Booth Centre I was sleeping a few nights a week at a shelter but was back on the streets at the weekends because the place didn’t have the funding to stay open all week.

“The council refused to help me because I wasn’t deemed vulnerable enough. But the Booth Centre got me into a hostel for a few days and then into shared accommodation.

“Being involved in this project has been a great experience. Art gives people more confidence – it’s unbelievable to see what happens when people find they have an artistic side.”

Jez Green of Manchester Homeless Partnership and Mustard Tree says: “When we were asked to take part we were really intrigued by the idea but stressed that we really needed to keep people with experience of homelessness involved throughout the process.

“This is not a typical MIF event or a typical MIF venue. It’s fantastic that the festival is doing something so pioneering and inclusive – it’s co-produced and free, and people can come into the installation and watch him painting.

“There will be people from the team there throughout and people who have been homeless. We can give people information about the festival and talk about the issues and how people can
get support.”

For anyone unable to visit MIF, BBC Radio 6 Music will feature a special programme on MIF’s Manchester Street Poem from 1-2pm on Sunday 16 July. Elizabeth Alker will present the programme, and introduce a specially curated mix of the soundtrack made by Rick Smith of Underworld, for BBC 6 Music Hear a short clip from the programme, alongside a special animation below. The programme will be available for 30 days after airing via the 6 Music website or the iPlayer Radio app.

Manchester Street Poem is on 6-14 July, 10am-6pm at Unfear, 68-70 Oldham Street. Free entry. Manchester International Festival ( starts on 29 June. 

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