Published on May 15, 2014 | by Karina Starobina


The Art Of Being Homeless

It’s an unusually warm Saturday night in winter London. A laughing and impatient crowd stands outside Howard Griffin gallery on Shoreditch High Street waiting to go inside. Today is the opening of the The Bestiary exhibition by Phlegm, the street artist.

John Dolan and his dog

John Dolan used to paint in Shoreditch High Street with his dog George [Howard Griffin Gallery]

Beer reception, inspired and curious people, constantly taking pictures of the installation – isn’t that what art is all about?

The crowd gets bigger; some people have to wait outside to take a look. There is only one chair in the whole gallery with a sign “Reserved for John Dolan”.

“Who the hell is that?” you might think. I spoke to Francesca Giorgi-Montfort, 23, the manager of the gallery: “Oh John? He is not here yet. His exhibition was on a couple of months ago. He was homeless for 20 years, last three of these years he spent sitting on Shoreditch High Street with his dog George, painting houses and people passing by.

“You may not think you know him, but he is East London’s most notorious artist.”

Studio on the street: John fined a reputation as one of East London’s best street artists [Howard Griffin Gallery]

John Dolan has lived in London his whole life and has been drawing on Shoreditch High Street for the past three years. In the past he has been in and out of prison and often found himself homeless. The artist’s work asks the people to open their eyes and see London for what it really is.

This appears to be so intriguing that I can’t wait to meet John Dolan and the famous dog, George. Their story inevitably makes you think about the busker from Piccadilly Circus and his ginger buddy Bob the cat. Everyone knows about James Bowen, the former heroin addict who was busking and then selling The Big Issue with his cat. Now he has written three books and a movie is being considered of his adventures on the streets. There is a way out for homeless people, isn’t there?

Let’s take a look at some facts and figures. Did you know that homelessness has risen for three years in a row in Britain?

The main reasons are believed to be housing shortages and benefit cuts. About 185, 000 people a year are affected by homelessness in England. More than that, a research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that almost one in 10 people experience homelessness at some point in their life, with one in 50 experiencing it in the last five years.

Reforms introduced this year do not help, either. The so-called bedroom tax, a change to housing benefit entitlement, means people receive less housing benefit if they live in a housing association or council property that is deemed to have one or more spare bedroom.

Success stories like those of John (and George) make you hope for the best and they do draw attention to this widespread problem. It makes you wonder how many talented people you walk past on the street every day. It appears that all they need is a second chance.

“John and his dog are inseparable,” Francesca continues. “When we made the exhibition, George was the witness of everything happening around the gallery. This exhibition meant a lot to John. He was able to reconnect with his family and friends and get his life back on track. Now he attends all our events and supports everything we do. He even has a special spot as you can see yourself.”

George the dog sits in front of his cup while John draws passers by and buildings [Howard Griffin Gallery]

Howard Griffin gallery gives every artist a chance to make a difference. For example, John raised £1,600 for The Big Issue Foundation auction where he sold George the Dog’s drawing. He is determined to write a book about his story and donate money to the foundations, which help homeless people.

“When John told me about all the projects helping homeless people he is now involved in I was really proud of him. I also thought that my job has a purpose.”

Finally, at about 8pm John and George walk into the gallery. They are not really in the mood to talk to me, but it’s evident they are proud of their success and are really fond of each other.

However, John is keen to speak about his experience of being homeless. “I started getting in trouble with the police since I was a teenager,” he said. “At 19 I went to Feltham prison for six months. When I came out my grandparents didn’t want me back, because I had made their lives miserable. That’s how my homelessness started. I slept on building sites, in hotel basements and clean bin sheds. I lived in an abandoned car in a car park for half a year.

“My disability benefits were cut and I was forced on to the streets to beg. I sat on Shoreditch High Street and put a cup in front of George, so it looked like he was begging. Then I started drawing buildings across the road. After two months I was selling pictures and was published in Shoreditch Unbound, a book showcasing work from local artists, including Tracey Emin, Gilbert and George – and me.”

However much the government insists it is taking measures to protect people from homelessness, it seems art galleries are doing a better job.

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