Confronting the Default: Portraying Homelessness in Science Fiction and Fantasy

“The main reason I address this sort of thing in my writing is to keep an awareness that people on the street are people. Circumstances put them on the street; they didn’t choose to be there.”
—Charles de Lint

In 2018, the Writing Excuses podcast discussed Confronting the Default. During the thoughtful episode, hosts Brandon Sanderson, Amal El-Mohtar, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Maurice Broaddus talk about unlearning assumptions in fiction: for example defaulting to certain seasons, the common trope of groups of male characters with one female character, creating only straight characters, or writing about Renaissance Europe without people of colour. This got me thinking about a default that is pervasive within fiction: the harmful portrayal of people experiencing homelessness.

At 16 (while still at school) I was kicked out of home, spending three years either no fixed abode or vulnerably housed. You can read a bit more about my experiences via the Haunt Harrogate website. Haunt was a project run by myself, fellow writer Becky Cherriman (who also spent time homeless), and Imove Arts. Harrogate is seen as an affluent town, and the aim of Haunt was to show that there was a high degree of hidden homelessness, with people often sofa surfing, staying in nearby woodland to avoid the violence that can often come of sleeping in town centres. During the Haunt Harrogate project, we ran writing workshops for people experiencing homelessness, brought out an anthology of that work, had the writing included in a local exhibition called Harrogate Stories, and worked the poems and flash fiction up into a promenade theatre performance. The whole aim of the project was to disrupt people’s view of Harrogate as a place with no homelessness, and show that there were a high number of people without a home living in the town.

According to a 2015 survey, 1 in 20 children under six in the United States were experiencing homelessness , while the more recent 2019 report estimates that during 2016-2017 this rose to 1 in 18 children under six experiencing homelessness.
In England, Shelter reported 280,000 people are homeless, with at least 4677 rough sleeping.

A lot of people have homelessness in their story, yet the way homelessness is often portrayed in fiction falls into certain tropes.

The Corpse

One of the most common roles for people experiencing homelessness is to die, become an unnamed corpse and elicit sympathy in the protagonist. They become an object to invoke emotion, or to move the story on. This is often seen in crime drama, for example the Criminal Minds episode “Legacy”, where the homeless victims only gain significance when they become the clue to catching the killer. In The Wire, McNulty uses corpses of homeless people to fabricate a serial killer case to secure funding. Although he levers sympathy by focussing on the ‘most vulnerable of society’, the characters of those who are homeless are not important. They are an object for him to achieve his goals.

The Victim

If a protagonist is experiencing homelessness, the story will often focus on the darker side; they will be prey for predators, abused, or an innocent surrounded by those who aren’t. This isolated victim within a sea of threat trope often overlooks the community that exists amongst people experiencing homelessness. The victim is often told through analogy, for example the hunting of those experiencing homelessness in Max Brooks’ The Extinction Parade. This is not new, appearing more directly in Mark Twain’s 1857 The Carnival of Crime in Connecticut. In this the narrator finishes the story by advertising homeless people he stores in his basement for sale by weight.

The First Victim

The first victim is very much connected to the last idea, but is so common that it deserves its own mention. The person experiencing homelessness is the first to see the aliens arrive, the monster stalk the streets, the first to die at the serial killer’s blade, or the first to be possessed. Examples of this abound, including The X-Files episode ‘The Jersey Devil’, and The Matrix, wherein Agent Smith occupies the body of a man experiencing homelessness. This also occurs several times in Doctor Who episodes such as ‘The War Machines’ and ‘The End of Time’. The identity of the person experiencing homelessness is unimportant, they are merely an object to move on the story.

The Invisible Homeless

While it is problematic in some ways, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” provides some interesting analogies with sofa surfing as an expression of homelessness. The main theme of the story is social exclusion, but the way that Marcie is living hidden within the school and has become invisible to the society around her is also a good exploration of themes of non-street homelessness. The theme of invisibility aligns with the experiences of author Terri Windling, who said: “I felt largely invisible as a homeless girl — not quite human. Other. It took me a long time to shake that off during my university years. And despite all the decades that have passed since then, that homeless child still lives deep inside me, wrapped up in her ragged donkey-skin like the girl from the fairy tale.” Charles de Lint echoed this by saying, “Certainly when I was homeless, to straight citizens I was mostly invisible.”

Homeless and Outside Time

In fiction people experiencing homelessness are often severed from time, outside history, without a past or personal story. They are often portrayed as having no future, instead shown in this perpetual situation from which there’s no escape. In their article, The SciFi of Homelessness, MetisRebel talks about how Farscape shows John Creighton as “physically and metaphorically lost”, literally taken outside his time. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to see The Doctor as a coded version of the homeless person who is outside time, appearing in the lives of a settled community before moving off again.

Homelessness, particularly rough sleeping, is very hard to break out of and, speaking personally, once circumstances change there is always the spectre of losing everything again (you’ve already been there, so know it can happen). Yet, most people have ambitions and goals and dreams, and those can carry them out of a bad situation (for me it was a desire to be an archaeologist). Showing this in fiction can help disrupt the default. Some people do become involved in working with people still living on the streets, but others distance themselves from their past for mental health and social reasons. One of the best portrayals of how people can move out of a homeless situation is Bubbles in The Wire, whose story arc over five seasons takes him from a rough sleeper with an addiction to being accepted back into his sister’s home.

In fiction people experiencing homelessness are also often portrayed as not having a present, beyond lack of a home. This placing of homeless characters ‘outside’ both literally and figuratively, can be seen in fiction in how they’re often severed from all types of community.

In England at least, many people are homeless in towns where they grew up. On a daily basis they will encounter people who they know. People might help them, meet them for coffee, there might be people they avoid, but they are embedded within that society. (There is another British stereotype where homelessness is often only shown in large cities, particularly London.) While I did feel separate from the wider society, it was also my friend’s parents who were making sure I ate, and other friends who were making sure I could afford clothes.

These tropes often rely on the idea that there is a lack of community amongst people who are homeless, which contrasts with the lived experience of many who have spent time homeless.

Writer Lynn Hardaker says, “There was a lot of looking out for one another. I still remember that for my 16th birthday—November in Toronto in an unheated building, mind—they gave me a card with a photo of kittens in a basket on it, the classic, sentimental, tacky image which just melted my heart and has stayed with me through the years.” The tropes of homelessness often seen in fiction tend to translate the cruelty and disregard from wider society to the homeless themselves. Lynn’s experiences above show this isn’t the case.

Simon Bestwick’s story”‘Vecqueray’s Blanket” is told from the perspective of a small group of homeless people, rather than externally. The protagonist is homeless, and the hero is homeless. The sense of community comes across very strongly within this horror story, as does the constant flux of people coming in and out of focus.

That sense of community is also present in Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere. London Below is apart from the mainstream and has its own internal relationships, but what is clear is that sense of support. London Below is shown as a world aside, one not seen by the rest of the city. While this community is mostly coded as homeless (there is often no indication where those from London Below live), it comes into stark contrast during the Three Trials. During the Trial of Character, Richard Mayhew is shown as homeless on a London Underground, with London Below just a hallucination. This is interesting as it portrays Mayhew in a way that the homeless are often seen by society; isolated, forgotten, and with no sense of community. A gift from Mayhew’s friend Anaesethesia reorientates him, both showing the connection to a wider community, and the importance possessions play in the lives of those experiencing homelessness as a way to locate themselves and make temporary locations feel like theirs.

Writer Charles de Lint has a different, but similar, experience “I lived on the street in the summer of 1967. Things were somewhat different there because of the whole hippie culture so that most of the older people on the scene looked out for the younger ones. There was a real sense of community and we made families of choice because we didn’t have that at home. There were certainly many unpleasant experiences but for the most part I look back at that time as both a positive and a formative experience.” I tried to sum up my own experiences of being in this parallel homeless society as a teenager here.

There is also the default assumption that people who are homeless do not work. This link between homelessness and unemployment is probably one of the most pervasive defaults. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes “Past Tense: Part 1 and 2”, the idea of homelessness is directly related to the lack of work. There is no doubt that lack of work can lead to loss of stable accommodation, yet the reality is far more complex. Many continue working, and while some of these income sources are illegal, people experiencing homeless can have legal sources of income. Some of these are associated with street work like selling the Big Issue (a magazine in the UK sold by the homeless or vulnerably housed), or busking. However, during Haunt we met people working as roofers and builders while living in homeless shelters. In my own case, I was still at school studying for exams after getting kicked out of home.

While people working while homeless is rarely mentioned in fiction, Lauren Oya Olamina in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower does talk about it: “The country was full of people who could earn or steal food and water, but could not rent even a cot. These might sleep on the street or in makeshift shacks, but if they could, they put a sleepsack between their bodies and the ground.” (Octavia E. Butler, 1993)

Homelessness doesn’t always look like homelessness. In fiction, rough sleeping is the main experience shown. People also experience homelessness while sofa surfing or stopping with friends and needing to move every couple of nights. Lynn Hardaker’s time homeless started with sofa surfing, moving onto squatting, with a couple of stays in shelters for teenagers. The chaotic nature and lack of security characterises homelessness not the setting. In some ways this makes people experiencing this type of homeless far less visible, because they are not being stepped across in the street.

Homelessness and Popular Culture

An important part of writing about homelessness in fiction is to speak to your characters who are squatting and sleeping rough. They might not have a roof over their heads, but they have their own tastes, likes and dislikes. They might hate tomatoes, or be vegetarian, or dislike pastry. Often people buy food for those begging without asking the person what they like, and then get annoyed when the person isn’t appreciative. They should not have to just be grateful for your generosity. That’s about you, not them. Speak to them first, and speak to your characters in the same way. During Haunt, we found people in the shelters preferred not to have cake, because everyone thought they needed a treat so bought them cake. We bought them pizzas and pasties instead.

In the same way, homelessness is not a detached culture. Your characters will have grown up in the same world as everyone else, with their own tastes in music, film and books. They might like rockabilly, or hate jazz, or love science fiction novels. They might follow a football team, spend time in free galleries, or love architecture. When Terri Windling was homeless she carried The Golden Book of Fairy Tales illustrated by Adrienne Segur, whereas Lynn kept a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, and Charles de Lint was making music. A 2019 article at Anime News Network talks about Toby, a 25 year old player of Granblue Fantasy, who is also experiencing homelessness, using free wifi in places such as libraries to play the game and pass the time: “According to Toby, the most difficult part of being homeless isn’t the walking or lack of funds; it’s boredom.”

In her LA Times article, Nita Lelyveld talks about Patti, a 68 year old living under a bridge, watching Netflix with a two month subscription someone had gifted her. Both are part of society and finding ways to engage with culture even while society sees them as separate because of their situation.

Positive Examples of Portrayals of Homelessness in Fiction

While I opened this article talking about bad stereotypes in fiction, there are many writers whose work features characters who are homeless and well written.

Charles de Lint is one of the best known writers whose work features homeless characters, especially in his Newford books. As Terri Windling points out, “[Because] he spent some time homeless in his youth, and it shows in the well-rounded way he creates characters with no home, and insecure home, or a threatened home.” I would echo this and recommend the books featuring Jilly Coppercorn, particularly The Onion Girl. Windling also makes the important point that the idea of homelessness is embedded within the fairy tale tradition, with the act of leaving home (often due to difficult family circumstances), sleeping rough, and returning (or not), often an essential part of the story: “They provided the map that led me through the Dark of the Forest to a transformed life beyond…I knew this tale. I knew I had to be brave, and clever, and persistent, and so I was.”

I would recommend Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, because of the way it portrays how people are ignored by the wider society when they drop through the gaps, and humanises them. There is also a very good story by Simon Bestwick called “Vequeray’s Blanket”. While this is a horror story, the characters feel well rounded and not just foils for housed protagonists.

Windling also recommends Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Linhold, about the experiences of a homeless veteran in Seattle, and the recent non fiction book The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

In The Dregs, a comic by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson, the main character Arnold is a man experiencing homelessness in Vancouver. Arnold takes the role of the private detective investigating a case no-one cares about, in a community no-one else has any interest in. Rather than the story being imposed externally, it’s created from the experiences of Arnold, using the tropes of detective noir, which makes him a much more active participant in the story than we normally see with people experiencing homelessness in fiction.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler is also an important story, because it shows how fragile the security of a home can be. Initially Lauren, who starts the book in a middle class gated community, is disparaging of those experiencing homeless, but through circumstances becomes one herself. That transition is important as it shows how we are all vulnerable to becoming homeless. Parable of the Sower also includes the backstory of several of Lauren’s companions who have experienced homelessness before, becoming homeless through poverty, tragedy or cruelty, giving them a humanity often missing in more stereotyped portrayals.

There are many ways people become homeless, experience homelessness, and move out of it, and the time spent homeless isn’t the same for everyone, nor is it uniform for one person.

As Brandon Sanderson points out in the “Confronting the Default” episode of Writing Excuses, it’s about being aware of how we default to certain portrayals so we can reflect on them, maybe think whether we meant to do that, and find a more interesting story by confronting our own unconscious biases. When it comes to a marginalised group such as people experiencing homelessness this can help change our own, and other people’s, perception of a very stereotyped part of our community.

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Below is a reading list with resources, recommendations and articles, including articles and pieces by people who have experienced homelessness themselves.

 

Steve Toase is a writer from North Yorkshire, England, who now lives in Munich, Germany. At 16 he was kicked out of home, spending 3 years either No Fixed Abode or vulnerably housed. He was the originator and lead writer of the Saboteur shortlisted Haunt, a project brought to life with Imove Arts and Becky Cherriman looking at hidden homelessness in his hometown of Harrogate. He writes regularly for Fortean Times and Folklore Thursday. His fiction has appeared in Shadows & Tall Trees vol. 8, Nox Pareidolia, Three Lobed Burning Eye, Shimmer, and Lackington’s, amongst others. In 2014, “Call Out” (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year 6, and two of his stories have just been published in Best Horror of the Year 11. His first short story collection ‘To Drown In Dark Water’ is due out from Undertow Publications in 2021.

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