Margate art installation highlighting the plight of homeless people dying on the streets

A forensic police tent depicts the final shelter for many of those who are homeless

An installation in the window of the former Primark store in Margate aims to highlight the plight of homeless people dying on the streets.

Consider has been created by Phien O’Phien from Margate who has previously exhibited at Tate Modern with art delving into the issues of those who are disenfranchised.

The installation is comprised of discarded chairs, painted, to represent people living rough  and a forensic police tent as the final shelter for many of those who are homeless.

Consider can be seen inside the seaside entrance of the former Primark store alongside the shelter where some of the isle’s homeless sleep.

The installation, which also has a booklet and postcards, is later being shown in the Model gallery in Ireland on July 6. It was first displayed at The Margate School in 2020.

The father-of-four, who is self-taught and well-known as a campaigner for the Pavee community and against discrimination based on race, sexuality or disability, said: “The installation Consider was brought into being when, one summer day, I witnessed a homeless man lying dead on a seaside bench. He must have just been discovered, as there was no police tape or forensic tent around him.

Photo The Margate School

“Two benches from his blanket-covered body sat a lady with a child in a pram eating fish and chips. It struck and shocked me that society had become so blasé about homeless people that they could ignore them, living and dead.

“That autumn, while driving home on a wet, foggy night, I saw what I thought was a homeless person squatting beside an alleyway wall. I initially passed by, but braked and went back to offer whatever help I could. Upon approaching the homeless person, I found it was a weather-worn chair.

“Pondering this later at home, I realised all homes have chairs until they are no longer wanted, and then they are disposed of. Many end up on the streets, just like discarded people do.

Consider by Phien O’Phien

“I went back the next day and rescued the chair, and for the following few months I sought out abandoned chairs, and symbolically, for me and the installation, they became people. I found my “people” dumped on the streets, in alleyways, gardens, and fly-tipped in lanes.

“I painted the chairs various colours to represent commonplace human emotions, but also the different emotions and traumas particular to homeless people. I gave them names and backstories, hoping to consciously tweak people’s consciences to consider homeless people as fellow humans in great need of help and not just some sort of abstract street furniture.

“Sadly and disturbingly, the last roof some homeless have over their heads is a police forensic tent, and so I place these society victims in and around their last shelter.”

Uwe Derksen of TMS Photo Frank Leppard

Uwe Derksen the director of the Margate School Gallery, said: “Phien explained to me that he’d developed a concept for an exhibition and thought the space we had in Margate High Street, possibly one of the most challenging high streets in the country, was the right space for the work he had in mind.

“Phien explained that it would be an exhibition comprising chairs abandoned on the streets, a police forensic tent, photos, and individual stories of homeless people who had passed away.

“Each chair would symbolically represent one homeless person. I was not sure what to expect from Phien’s exhibition, but the result had a profound impact on me and the many visitors who came to see the exhibition Consider in October 2020.

“The display of the chairs, colourfully painted to symbolise stress, trauma, emotions, stood within and outside the forensic tent—those outside waiting their turn to enter the tent—powerfully demonstrating the revolt and making a stand against our indifference to the plight of this vulnerable group in society: the homeless.

“I view it as a very significant piece of artwork that will hopefully get the national and international recognition it deserves. Anyone who sees the exhibition will not remain untouched.”

Homeless people and deaths on our streets

Photo John Horton

In 2021 (most recent data published) there were three identified deaths of homeless people in Thanet with five deaths estimated. Estimates, meaning those who died on the street but may not have been registered as homeless.

The previous year also saw three identified deaths and four estimated.

From 2013-2022 it is estimated 22 homeless people in Thanet dies with identified deaths listed as 18.

New data was due to be published in November 2023 but in January the Office for National Statistics (ONS) launched a consultation on axing the statistics over accuracy concerns.

Early analysis of the consultation resulted in a U-turn on those plans and the ONS will now make “iterative” changes to improve accuracy of the statistics. More detail is expected to be announced in a full response to the consultation in May.

According to research by the Museum of Homelessness 1313 people across the country died while homeless in 2022, an 85% increase on the numbers recorded by the study in 2019.

An annual survey for people sleeping rough in local authority areas between October 1st and November 30th in 2023 shows 23 people identified as sleeping on the street in Thanet. This data is, however, only a snapshot.

The data published by Kent County Council says the majority of rough sleepers in Kent were aged 26 and over.

In April this year annual funding from Kent County Council for homelessness charity Porchlight was cut by £1m, putting the future of the organisations hostels at risk. It also forced Porchlight to scale back other work such as homelessness prevention and supporting people via the helpline.

In the wake of the funding cut, more than 600 people made donations, buying extra time to continue the fight for long-term funding.

Pavee artist Phien O’Phien explores homelessness in Margate School exhibition ‘Consider’

16 Comments

  1. Rarely is homelessness the cause of death. It’s the smack and alcohol that gets them. Yes, there is a big issue of people being homeless. Drug and alcohol abuse is the bigger issue. Will they be opening up the old Primark building so the homeless can stay there in the winter?

    • You may be right. There again, if I was homeless I’d probably succumb to drug and/or alcohol abuse. Just one drink to make the shame & fear go away just a little … then another …
      I do agree that an imaginative approach to (hopefully temporary) accommodation is required. So yes, why not the Primark building? It would mean that more homeless folk would flock here but somebody somewhere has to bite the bullet.

    • You have hit the nail on the head.

      It is more than ironic that the long-empty building can be used for housing art highlighting homeless people but not for housing the actual homeless people.

  2. Of Cause they will ,pink elephants etc,more pretentious art ,in a heavily state backed art system,pay your own way,not via grants

      • Will get worse if labour take over steel from the poor to feed the rich and welcome the immigrants with open arms and free warm dry Hotels with food and money . But let our own freeze and suffer and live ruff .stop the boats and help our own people get off the streets off drugs and off booze . Even our elderly need more help .

      • I don’t think that was the intention by ‘Return of the Spack’ to make the homeless dead look like they are DFL’s. I believe they meant that because of the DFL’s taking over the accommodation and section 21’s giving tenants their marching orders, they are unable to find anything else as the DFL’s have pushed the pricing up out of reach of the ordinary tenant, which means more and more are being dumped on the streets homeless with nowhere to go, so are turning to drink and drugs and a life of crime and ultimate early death.
        Thanet Council should be housing as many local people that are section 21’ed as a priority, but of course they are not build anywhere near enough social housing properties. They take funding from government to house and home people from other lands when they cannot help our own in similar situations.

        • Okay I see the point made was not about the dead but the man himself being not a DFL. The rest still stands though.

  3. It highlights an important issue, but I do wish the building was used as something to bring back shoppers instead (surely TC would be a better place for it?).

    • What it highlights but no one seems to realise is that the legislation governing hmo’s was tightened considerably, as a result the previous squalid hmo’s closed ( squalid because thats the way many of the residents chose to live ) it became impossible for a landlord to make a living out of endlessly repairing and improving property promptly trashed or just left filthy and uncleaned, so they shut them down and the tenants had nowhere to go. The council and housing associations similarly don’t want them as tenants on the benefit rates they are entitled to.
      So you end up with hugely expensive intervention programmes to try and help people who aren’t really interested in living like the rest of us. Yes there’ll be the much publicised success stories but that isn’t the norm.
      How much money do you spend on those that really don’t want to conform? And that’s solely in respect of their accomodation costs, before you consider the cost to the police, nhs and society.

        • People with chaotic lifestyles tend to die earlier, the article is about them being homeless i was pointing out one of the reasons that homeless numbers increased . There was a typical example of the hmo’s i describe in southwood and another a few doors from sundowners, going in them was an education in itself , people really don’t see how some choose to live. Their behaviours lead to greater interactions with the nhs and police ( in general) so it is all related.
          A few painted chairs and a plastic tent are not going to change much, there are tiny groups in society that are pretty much beyond help. The story would be better if it listed what those found dead on the street died of , along with details of those estimated/identified to be clarified as it seems a case of cynical statistics to have the estimated to outnumber the identified, plus it should also be compared with the total number of deaths in thanet over the same time periods to give a bit of context.

          • They are not always in chaotic lifestyles, just because they are housed in HMO’s. And, it’s not only people in HMO’s that are being given section 21’s by landlords. The new DFL landlords are also getting people out, often part of the agreement to purchasing the property is that they get it empty. Ordinary rental people are being put on the street. People on the street homeless turn to drink and drugs to get by with the hopelessness. Poor governance by national and local authorities are to blame not the people.

          • Where did i say that all were in chaotic lifestyles? I said that people with chaotic lifestyles tend to die earlier. I also said that without comparative data the figures are pretty meaningless, ie. how many people with homes died in the same period, and what were the causes of death.
            Neither did i mention sec21. The vast majority of people manage to find housing , those that don’t and end up on the street usually have other factors that lead to living on the street.
            Society has decided that private landlords aren’t wanted, and have bought in measures to discourage them , this has worked and the amount of private rented accomodation as a percentage of the nations population has shrunk. That nobody has managed to work out that this leads to problems housing people is laughable, but governments never have been good at joined up thinking.
            You can choose to relieve the homeless of any blame , but i don’t prescribe to that argument. In a society where we allow people to live as they wish you will always get the outliers, in the past we had the poorhouses , vagrancy laws , asylums etc.
            Now the only option is to provide housing , which for some in society is an extremely expensive proposition, as a taxpayer i don’t wish to pay for what would effectively be hotel style accomodation for those that would have no respect for it. However if all those who feel it’s what should be done are happy to dig deep and pay for it between them , feel free. But all that would do is create ever greater demand.
            In the absence of a willingness and the resources to severely curtail the drugs trade , the problem will always exist to some degree.

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