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Cardboard Citizens: Interview with the Director of Sleeping Rough

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

by Lauren Thompson

"The most important thing for me was that the people that were portraying homelessness should have experience with homelessness as well."

Owain Astles is the writer and director of ‘Sleeping Rough’, a community-based docudrama about street homelessness, created after having personal experiences of being homeless. He is also the founder of Pastels Productions. We talked to him about the film's production, the many forms of homelessness, and what can be done to help as cases of homelessness continue to rise.

The film documents individual accounts of people living on the streets without access to shelter. How did you come across these stories, and how did you choose which to include on-screen?

We spent about a year doing research. A lot of it was engaging with charities that are on the frontline, whether it was Shelter, Smile At A Stranger or the Bristol Soup Run. We went all around the country and talked to the people that they worked with who were experiencing homelessness.

Street homelessness is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what homelessness is. There are way more people that are in temporary accommodation, hostels etc. This film was about street homelessness specifically, so we carried out a load of interviews with people that were on the streets at the time. I think we ended up with over 100 hours of interviews to draw from.

In terms of selecting what elements of those interviews and stories we’d use in the final film, it was a mix. Some of it was the stuff that came up the most. With Jack’s story for example, his was an amalgamation of so many different stories that we heard of men, between 20-40 years old typically, who got made redundant.

They usually work their whole life, had a partner, quite often children as well. After being made redundant and being unable to find more work, not being supported by the benefits system, then having their relationship break down, they became homeless. In the case of men, he would sign the lease over to his partner. The reasons they were doing that was to protect their partner and children. But because they signed the lease over, they’ve made themselves homeless. You’re then officially classed by local councils as being voluntarily homeless, therefore not eligible for support, which is such a fucked up system.

What was the casting process like? How did you get these people together for the project?

The most important thing for me was that the people that were portraying homelessness should have experience with homelessness as well.

The vast majority of our cast had lived experience of homelessness, most of them came from a brilliant organisation called Cardboard Citizens, which is a theatre organisation that works with people that are experiencing or have experienced homelessness.

Although the events in the film were scripted and taken from interviews that we’d done, the dialogue itself was unscripted. That was another reason why I wanted to make sure that people had personal experience with homelessness. That was workshopped through rehearsals with the cast to develop those stories. Then, on set, they improvised the dialogue.


In terms of the way that you told the stories, what made you decide on the docudrama format over a documentary?

As a filmmaker I’m really interested in trying to bridge that gap between documentary and real life.

There’s so much potential for creation of empathy, there’s so much potential for it to be accessible to wider audiences and it’s such a powerful way to tell a story.

Most of the people that we interviewed that had experienced homelessness didn’t want to be on camera but most people were happy to do a voice recording. That was where that came from, as we can’t do a straight up documentary and show people’s faces. I also decided to include those recordings as a voiceover in the film, so that when you see the scenes you understand it came from a real person. Hopefully that’s a way to provoke a bit more of a reaction, and more of an impetus for change as well.

How do you think the government and local communities could do more to help people in these positions?

Government and local councils should be doing everything they can to stop people finding themselves in these situations in the first place.

Far too often, it’s only when you already are homeless and in such a dangerous situation that support comes in. There is nowhere near enough affordable housing being built nationwide or enough funding for that coming from central government. That’s an issue that they essentially promised and lied about.

Homelessness is linked with so many other issues. Domestic abuse and the care system for example, two things that are briefly reflected in Catherine’s story, are two issues that have very little acknowledgment, There’s been a little bit more awareness during COVID but they’re two things that contribute massively to homelessness.

For women, the leading cause of homelessness is domestic violence. I’ve seen first hand the services that are doing such incredible jobs and local charities that are working with women affected, but they’re stretched and receive very little support. The care system is the same. 70% of people that are in prison have been in the care system, that’s a crazy disproportionate amount.

There needs to be way more rights for people that are privately renting and more support for people who are on benefits. I think the whole benefits system really needs to be overhauled. So many people that I speak to have been so negatively affected by universal credit. It’s made people homeless. The fact that universal credit has been implemented has made people homeless directly. So that’s a lot of things, not a short answer!

What would you say is the best way on a local level that people can do to help and raise awareness?

At the most basic level, I would suggest before that if you pass anyone in the street that is street homeless, make sure you acknowledge them. That’s something that most people won’t even do.

Up from that, if you can, offer something. Whether that’s time, money, donations to local charities. Look up what’s going on locally. If you live in Bristol, Caring in Bristol are doing an incredible job.

The next level up from that is to be more involved politically. The main organisations are Centrepoint, Shelter, and Crisis. See what campaigns they’ve got going on, contact your local lawmakers, write to your local MP.

At the final level, push for change nationally, write to the guy who is unfortunately prime minister. Write to Kelly Tolhurst who’s the current Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing. They’re the people that need to hear it! There’s a lot happening at the moment because we’ve got the evictions ban coming to an end soon, so there’s likely to be a lot more people getting evicted from their homes due to rent arrears that happened during COVID.

Make sure you’re doing what’s okay for you but look at what your capabilities are. If that’s one hour a week for volunteering or driving to deliver food, you can do that. Just today I was out with a charity called Nightstop that works with people that have a spare room. They work with young people who have recently been made homeless that need somewhere to stay for one or two nights before they move on to more secure accommodation. That’s another good thing to look into that’s relatively low commitment. Maybe it’s just a £5 to £20 donation once a month, small things like that can also make a difference. Look at your skills, what is your thing. What do you do, and how can you potentially contribute some of that to help the issue of homelessness.

Screenings of Sleeping Rough have been postponed following the COVID-19 outbreak, but will hopefully be available to screen online at the end of the year. Find out where you can view it


Lauren Thompson is a copywriter, editor, and freelance content creator. Words for Radical Art Review, Little White Lies, Filmoria, Taylor Magazine & more


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