Unexpected beginnings

Big Issue North vendors appear in a prizewinning documentary that stresses there are ways out of homelessness

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A film exploring homelessness in Manchester that features Big Issue North vendors has won best documentary in the London Independent Film Awards. Director Tony Lord made Under the Roof of the Sky because he felt homelessness was a subject that “requires exploration. It’s a subject that everyone has an opinion on, particularly if you live in a big city. There are so many surrounding issues which in my opinion are all connected, and the film also looks at wealth inequality and access to mental health services.”

The 65 minute documentary, Lord’s first feature-length film, includes moving testimonies from several people about their experiences of homelessness in and around Manchester, alongside interviews with people who work in the homelessness sector.

Manchester city centre vendors such as Justin, who is currently homeless and sells the magazine in St Ann’s Square, appear in the film, but Lord says he wanted the focus of the documentary to be on people who have found a way out of homelessness and overcome the problems related to it, such as addiction.

Lord hopes that people watching the film will come away with the understanding that “it is possible to get out of homelessness. Just because you are in an extremely bad situation it’s not necessarily the end of the story”. But he notes that the problems connected to homelessness need to be addressed before people can truly move on from a life on the streets.

Lord, who works for Badkamra, part of the Calico group, which provides a range of services in housing, homelessness and addiction support, is pleased with the recent film award. He’s been entering the film into various festivals and wants to create another documentary in the future.

One of the people interviewed in the film is Anthony, who is originally from Stockport but who, through relationship breakdowns and a battle with addiction, became homeless on the streets of Bolton.

In the film, Anthony, 47, talks about how desperate he felt when he was on the streets. “I had no hope, no self-esteem and no sense of value,” he says. “I used to be pissed off when I woke up in the morning that I had to do it all again. I’d got my head down in a doorway the night before hoping that would be it – that it would be the last night. It’s a sorry state to be in, but many people in that situation are in it.”

He’s noticed that rough sleeping and begging are on the rise again after the pandemic. What’s needed, he says, is more outreach from services, particularly to towns away from city centres.

“When I was homeless in Bolton, the only people I ever spoke to were other homeless people or addicts, or the police when they moved me along. As far as I was aware no one was on my side whatsoever.”

Having struggled with addiction since he was a teenager, taking drugs to “shut the door to feelings and things in my head”, Anthony has now been clean for several years and has a good relationship with his family. He recently obtained his diploma in counselling and now works with other people in recovery.

Anthony is pleased with the finished film, saying that Lord has “done the subject proud”.

“I hope that families of people who are homeless can see from the film that there is a way forward – that there are people out there who can go on to live a productive life, that there is hope.”

He and Lord also hope the film gives a different perspective on people who living on the streets.

“When you’re homeless you feel like a rat, like vermin. People just walk past you, look right through you as if you are not there. It’s heartbreaking – it really is,” says Anthony. “We’ve all got a story to tell. They’re not just someone begging in the street. They all have a background – a family – someone who is probably worrying about them, wondering where they are.”

Lord agrees. “I hope people come away from this film with the understanding that people on the streets have a back story, that there is more to them than just someone who is homeless.”

You can see the film at undertheroofofthesky.org.uk

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