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Community, solidarity and fighting injustice – an interview with Jess and Matt Turtle

Ahead of their presentation at our Annual Conference in May, I was lucky enough to sit down with Jess and Matt Turtle: co-founders of the award-winning Museum of Homelessness. The Museum works with people who have lived experience of homelessness to collect and share histories, carry out independent campaigns and investigations into issues affecting the community, as well as providing mutual aid-style support to people who need it.

One of the first things we discuss is their close connection to Wales. Both of Jess’ parents had experience of homelessness – her dad in particular had been a homeless community organiser in London for decades – before setting up The Wallich in Cardiff, where Jess was then born. Plus, Matt tells me that Cardiff is where he and Jess first met one another. As a special place for them, working and presenting in Wales had been a wish of theirs since setting up the Museum – so we were glad to snap up the opportunity to have them at our Conference!

One of the Museum’s most high profile areas of work is the Dying Homeless Project, which collects and presents data about people dying whilst homeless across the UK, as well as providing an online space for people to submit tributes to those who’ve passed. The latest publication from the Project showed an 80% increase in the number of people dying while homeless in the UK over the last two years. Although there has been a decrease in deaths while homeless in Wales, the overall picture is grim and any number of deaths is too many – so I asked them their thoughts on what had led to this situation, what they’d been hearing about it from people on the frontlines, and what needed to change to prevent this from happening again.

The first thing they told me was shocking – many of the people dying whilst homeless were actually losing their lives in services. I think I had assumed, without realising, that the majority – if not all – of the people dying would have been sleeping rough in poor outdoor conditions, but the truth is far more complex than that. They tell me that people staying in temporary accommodation, particularly exempt accommodation were reporting loneliness, leaning on addiction to cope and even feeling suicidal. Lack of access to rehab services was also suggested as a contributing factor. Of course, all of this must have been drastically worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic which, whilst getting “everyone in,” meant that some people were housed in unfamiliar settings with limited contact with their support networks, trying to access already overstretched and underfunded services pushed to their breaking point.

They also noted that homelessness is a structural issue – meaning, there are structural factors around allocation of resources, funding, public perceptions of homelessness and levels of poverty that have been around long before the latest cost of living crisis that contribute to the root cause of these issues. As well as accessible service provision, fixing structural issues requires broad structural change with the voices of those with lived experience at the heart of decision making. I fully believe that we in Wales are making important strides toward this, with the recently published Ending Homelessness Action Plan, planned transition to Rapid Rehousing and upcoming implementation of the Renting Homes (Wales) Act which strengthens tenant’s rights. Working with my colleague Freya has proven a heartening experience as she develops and delivers our new Experts by Experience project, which aims to listen to and centre the voices of people with lived experience in decisions about policy and practice.

Next, I asked them about the recent UK Government proposals to replace the repealed Vagrancy Act with a new piece of legislation that appears to favour increased enforcement of laws against begging. We agreed on a lot of things, and ended up having a very in-depth discussion which was useful for our own consultation response here at Cymorth! In particular, we agreed that enforcement or criminalisation of begging cannot ‘heal’ the root causes of it. In fact, criminalising people adds to people’s trauma, moving them out of town centres prevents them from accessing support, and fining them pushes them further into poverty. Healing from the traumas of homelessness and the adverse circumstances that cause it is not done through enforcement, but by accessing person-centred services and building strong, trusting and reparative relationships when you are ready.

Finally, we touched base on their upcoming session at our Annual Conference, which they described in their own words as a reflection of the power of community to overcome trauma and injustice, as well as the power of grassroots voices who have always been leaders of change, even when undervalued.

We wrapped up with a reiteration of the structural nature of homelessness and poverty, and the need for a top-down approach which is grounded in people’s lives and communities in order to enact change.

If you’d like to hear more from Jess and Matt, you can watch their presentation at our conference below:


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© Cymorth Cymru 2022
Company Registration No: 5093332
Charity No: 1116774