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Responding to Other People’s Dreams

By sketching the dehumanising boxes so rife within the UK’s housing sector, Gael Welstead presents a conceptual and pointed overview of the connected crises negatively affecting our health and well-being
words + sketches – gael welstead
location – edinburgh, united kingdom

The depriving of positive human qualities – for my [millennial] generation, the precarity of a positive housing experience is often all too real. Even those who might consider themselves privileged may have found themselves in a flat with worrying mould, too afraid to raise it with the landlord as they have a ‘relatively good deal’ in their chosen employment hotspot.

So, what are these positive human qualities? Who is defining them? Such questions make me think of a friend who joined her local choir, shopped and exercised locally – before being priced out of her home in London in under two years. Hers seemed like a life full of positive human qualities. Such a lifestyle may feel above and beyond accepted expectations but the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’s description of merely adequate housing [p4] notes “Cultural adequacy: housing is not adequate if it does not respect and take into account the expression of cultural identity.” Joining your local choir and expecting to maintain the cultural ties established there shouldn’t feel as big an ask as it clearly often does.

And what does continued progression from one dehumanising box to another mean, in reality? This quote from Lee Ivett’s ‘Other People’s Dreams’ in issue 004 really hit a nerve. The stream of negative housing news [in the UK] is fairly constant, compartmentalised into catchy soundbites that taste increasingly bitter the more they grate against your own housing reality. At the living and breathing end of the stick, housing can feel like a choose-your-poison proposition – mouldy or cold? Or both, but close to work?

Even more astonishingly, even if you fall out of the chain of one dehumanising box to another, finding yourself homeless isn’t enough in this society to render a sufficient diet of dehumanisation. Hostile architecture is abundant throughout the UK, in the details of the urban realm that make it uncomfortable to sit down or spend too long in one place. When homeless in the UK, not only is your inferred spatial box open to the elements, lacking privacy and warmth, but often the very surfaces around you may be actively rejecting your presence. It’s emotionally uncomfortable to make the connection between cardboard boxes being required to move house, whilst also being a vital insulating material for those sleeping in the street.

All of this made me think: what are the long term repercussions created by the continued precarity of the poor quality, and probably dehumanising, places that many people are laying their head down in – night after night?

Sketching The Effects

To explore the long-term repercussions of dehumanising living conditions, it’s helpful to look at the Ecosystem of Wicked Problems to hypothesise how this causal context could move to effect. This diagram was created in 2019 by Christian Sarkar and Philip Kotler to map how interconnected the main challenges affecting humans are, and it does a compelling job.

If you’ve ever sat at home worrying about your health whilst looking at some black mould; wondered if you can still go for a swim along your local coastline in light of recent articles about sewage dumping; or given up on seeking therapy because the next available appointment is 18 months away, then you may be feeling the granular impacts of this ecosystem in your day to day life.

Inadequate housing directly connects to health in this ecosystem. This is further evidenced in the House of Commons own report, which includes a reference to the finding by the Building Research Establishment that “poor housing is costing [the] NHS £1.4bn a year” [2021].

“Poor-quality housing harms health and evidence shows that exposure to poor housing conditions (including damp, cold, mould, noise) is strongly associated with poor health, both physical and mental. The longer the exposure to poor conditions, including cold, the greater the impact on mental and physical health.”

– The Health Foundation, Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, February 2020, section 3E p108. 

With regard to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal no. 3: good health and well-being, it’s clear that adequate housing is a major factor in supporting this goal. At one end of the spectrum, it may be that where you can afford to live isn’t as close as is healthy to your work, an accessible gym or greenspace; at the other you’re “choosing between heating and eating” – an all too familiar headline from recent years. As becomes clear, the cost of living crisis is a housing crisis which is a health crisis…

What may feel like a constant [poor housing] is actually degradation

The sketches shared throughout this article present a way of thinking through these conjoined and complex crises. What strikes me most from them is the rebounding of problems: the failure of one part of the system creates reduced capacity at the personal and interpersonal level, which returns the gift of further problems to macro level operations. Positive human qualities such as feeling part of your community, being able to express your true self and not having to worry about the long term security of your home shouldn’t feel like luxuries; they should feel like the valuable part of a system that they are. Homelessness isn’t inevitable – it’s an outcome of a system that has somehow been deemed acceptable for the perceived benefits. 

What may feel like frustration and loneliness may actually be societally induced inability to be your best self and contribute to your community

Looking back over these sketches, I appreciate that they present a number of questions – the more I work in the problem solving space, the more I realise the right answers are far less important than the right questions. 

By way of considerations of solution, adequate housing for all – the Finnish model, for example – feels like a good place to start. Not only would this alleviate some of the economic incentives for high housing demand [driving up rents] but it would reduce the stress and anxiety of housing precarity so many people find themselves in. Under such circumstances, people might begin to feel more empowered to complain about the black mould in the kitchen – making small steps to moving the UK away from the chain of dehumanising boxes it has seemed so unfeasible to break free from.

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