Art in Action: The Whitechapel Centre and New Beginnings

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

by Jessie Jones

 

"This is why "MEP" is such a refreshing thing to witness. The care that they provide extends beyond temporarily housing homeless people but also helping them to integrate into communities"

One service users' photograph taken through the New Beginnings pathway.

(For the sake of anonymity and protection, service user’s names have been left out.)


The Whitechapel Centre is the leading homeless and housing charity in the Liverpool region. Flourishing in ways that the third sector often doesn’t, prioritising the material conditions of service users and action within the community, Whitechapel has exponentially increased in momentum in the past fifteen years.


Whitechapel has witnessed the legacy of centrist Blairite governance, transmogrified into Tory government’s austerity measures, our Neoliberal landscape marked by increased levels of homelessness, addiction, job loss, and mental health crises to rival the Great Depression.


Amongst this destruction, charity often falls short of activism; Whitechapel however, fight to prevent homelessness by directly challenging injustices. Part of the service they offer is to people at risk of homelessness as well as those already rough sleeping.


New Beginnings, a pathway within Whitechapel, provides formal and informal learning from photography and creative writing to upcycling and restoring furniture.


The aim of New Beginnings is to allow members to use their time, in shelters and across the different Whitechapel projects, to learn and develop meaningful skills and knowledge.


They have built up strong connections with external organisations to ensure that this work continues to branch out. The work they do as a team extends through these networks to create opportunities for education, employment, and training, for when service users are ready.


Across all of the different venues, the project has been centred around using art as action and creativity as a productive way of unifying people with the communities they’ve been materially, and politically, cut off from.



Mural created by service users displaying photographs taken with Tony Mallon (Credit: Author's own, 2021)

New Beginnings is part of the umbrella service ‘Meaningful Engagement Pathways’ (subsequently “MEP”).


Each of the pathways is designed to help service users become part of a local community. Where other charities can often fail in caring for those who fall outside of the system, emerge out of it, or are no longer eligible for certain services, Whitechapel and New Beginnings combine to care for vulnerable people from initial risk to reintegration.

Exhibited as part of Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, group exhibition at FACT, Liverpool (Tony Mallon, digitintherib.co.uk)

One of the most significant New Beginnings projects has been with local photographic artist Tony Mallon. Born in Kirkby in Liverpool, Tony has consistently focused his artistic efforts upon marginalised peoples and ostracised communities.


Knowing from the early stages of his artistic education that he wanted to work outside of mainstream institutions, displaying and using his work outside of the academy and gallery space, he made a concerted effort to combine his creative practice with community care.


He has worked with multiple local charities and communities including Asylum Link, Emmaus UK, Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust Hospital, Open Eye Gallery, Riverside Housing, and New Beginnings. Predominantly working with Crisis Skylight Merseyside since 2012, Tony works as a photography tutor with vulnerable service users, predominantly people suffering as a result of homelessness.

Homeless photographic zine (Tony Mallon digitintherib.co.uk)

His 2015 project Homeless is a photography zine created to explore, examine and document the lived experience of homelessness in Merseyside during 2014-15.


The photography and text work in harmony to create a simultaneously uplifting and eerie portrayal of the spaces and experiences of homeless people and shelters in the Merseyside area.


The photographs in the zine were exhibited as part of LOOK/15, Liverpool’s international photography festival, and at the Unseen Photo Festival in Amsterdam in 2015, showcasing the intimate portraits of people and their spaces on an international scale.

 

Related: Migration and Isolation Photography

 

The spaces recorded here are liminal; they exist in the inbetween of public and private, home and hotel, social clubs and care facilities. These haunting images of space exemplify those who inhabit them, existing themselves often in between processes of help, care, activism, and support.


When people emerge out of these systems, what is there to help them? This is something that’s familiar in the discourse when discussing former prisoners; where is the support for people who are newly released, marred by a system that’s failed them repeatedly?

One of the images taken by a service user with photographic artist Tony Mallon (Anonymous)

This is why “MEP” is such a refreshing thing to witness. The care that they provide extends beyond temporarily housing homeless people but also helping them to integrate into communities through volunteering schemes, combining housing efforts with drop in sessions, and buddy systems.


People newly moving from one service to another are provided with the care and experience of people who’ve previously been involved, creating a human network vital to building a life after homelessness and addiction.


The activities such as art, photography, and cooking with New Beginnings are not merely about occupying people but contributing to their future material conditions.


When asked what the photography group had done for them, service users answered that it offered them: “freedom and the chance to discover what’s on my doorstep in the community in which I live”.


Another rooted his experience in the passion he’d developed, the photography giving him the ability “to learn something I love, and to become really good at it. I love the photography sessions”.


“Making friendships and doing things with other residents off site” was also praised as something garnered from the photography project, connecting the men to each other as well as their wider community.


These projects enable a balance between caring for vulnerable people, with complex issues, whilst seeing their status in flux. Neoliberal society maintains a rigid categorisation of addicts, prisoners, and homeless people.


One’s label often sticks once it’s been designated in a meritocratic and individualistic society, seen as only an ex-addict, ex-prisoner, or someone who used to live on the streets.


Whitechapel’s work, especially through “MEP”, helps to destabilise those qualifying labels and help people in tangible, material ways.


Visit https://www.whitechapelcentre.co.uk/ to see more of the incredible work New Beginnings do, to donate to Whitechapel or, if you’re local, find out what you can do to make a tangible difference to a variety of vulnerable service users of Whitehchapel centres and venues.

 

Jessie Florence Jones is an essayist, journalist, and editor from Liverpool. She is also one of the literature editors at Radical Art Review. Follow her on Twitter.