George Olney is Stories Journalist for Crisis UK. He began his career as a journalist for the Glasgow Sunday Herald, before switching to photography. He was a press photographer and then a freelance general photographer for 12 years before taking on the newly-created post at Crisis UK.
My job came from people’s wrong assumptions. The public think two things about homelessness. That it’s an individual problem, caused by the individual’s failure in some way. And that it’s a fact of life that can’t be changed. And that’s why it’s not being solved and it’s getting worse.
We wanted to get beyond the label. My role came about as a way to tell different stories of homeless people, to help people understand how they got into the situation they did. We really wanted to discover their personal stories, so people understood them as a human being first and foremost, and connect with them. But then also talk about the structural reasons. How they could have got help? What help was available? Why didn’t it help them? And what could we do to change that?
‘Case study’ is a very clinical term. It sounds like you’re doing a medical study. My current role started out as ‘storyteller’, but that’s made me sound like I worked in a primary school, so it’s evolved into ‘stories journalist’.
There comes a moment that you stop sympathising. When you really listen to someone, you stop just feeling sorry for them and you start empathising with and understanding them. There’s a little shift, and it’s always different with each person.
But empathy can be hard sometimes. Certainly, with drug addicts and single young men who just seem to have made all the wrong choices. And trust me, I sit there sometimes thinking, you know, “Why did you make that choice? Why did you do that?” But then you take a breath, and sit, and just let them keep talking. And you start to hear about their childhood, and what they came through, and some of the stuff they’ve had to battle against, and the community where there were no opportunities, and the parents who were never there. There are reasons. There is always trauma somewhere if you go back far enough.
I had my own homeless experience. I was in my early 20s. I left home and went to Paris, taking a risk, after training as a journalist. I wanted to be like George Orwell. And very quickly ran out of money, and did not become George Orwell. I ended up sleeping on the Metro and parks in Paris for quite a while. It was frightening — you never know what’s going to happen when you’re asleep. You try and become invisible, and then you feel invisible as well. Your self-esteem gradually gets chipped away.
The number one thing rough sleepers want is socks. That’s one thing I remember from my time being homeless. Sleeping on trains and in the park, you can’t just take your shoes off. You can have a wash, but taking your shoes off is very difficult and then your socks never get clean. So just having fresh clean socks is one thing people sleeping rough really appreciate.
I wish I’d been braver. I probably would have done what I’m doing now, sooner. Before this I was a freelance photographer for a long time. And you get into a place of chasing ways to pay the rent. So I’d do a lot of PR work, and corporate work. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But I was always hankering after work like this… getting my name out to charities I wanted to work with, and causes I cared about.
Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Interview by Michael Isaacs.