Four men sit despondently outside a shopfront in the town of Leiston, in Suffolk. They have been there for three days. They’re cold and you can see the pained expressions on their faces.
They are snowmen, created by the Suffolk artist Chris Newson, to raise awareness of the many homeless people in Britain today having to face the freezing weather that has seen nearly three days of snow across the country. The artwork is called “Rough Sleepers”.
“Rough Sleepers”. All photos courtesy of Chris Newson, www.artistchris.co.uk
“If it brings any highlight to the plight of the homeless people, then great. So be it,” Newson tells me over the phone from his framing shop and gallery, where his snow sculptures are sitting. “They’re still here, they’ve been there for three days, they’re still cold.”
He’s about to make a dog to join them.
“I built a snowman and then I looked at it and it sort of had a life,” Newson says. “Someone said it reminded them of a homeless person, and it all sort of flooded back to me because I used to be homeless quite a few years ago. I’ve lived on the streets. It struck a chord with me.”
Newson, 56, who was born in Suffolk, tells me he slept rough for two or three-week periods over 15 years ago, when he was struggling with addiction and in and out of rehabilitation centres.
“It was hard, it was hard,” he tells me. “It was all to do with alcoholism and drug addiction, due to a very troubled childhood. But I’m good now and that’s all to do with my art.”
Usually an oil painter, who paints often for 14 hours a day (you can find his work here), he is using his first ever big sculptures to urge the government for more provision for homeless people. “They do have to be out all day in this and it is cold,” he says. “I think there should be more rehabs and I think there should be more social workers for people – but with the government cuts obviously that’s not going to happen, and it’s a sad state of affairs when in England at the moment, someone’s [living out in the] cold.”
As temperatures were forecasted to drop below zero for three consecutive nights, emergency shelters have been opened for homeless people by some councils and charities. A record number of homeless alerts in 24 hours have been sent to Streetlink, a system that connects homeless people with local services available to help them.
This follows rough sleeping in England rising for the seventh year in a row, with the 2017 figure up 15 per cent on the previous year – and up 169 per cent since 2010, according to homeless charities.
It’s a sign of the times that even snowmen tell a story about the effect austerity is having on the UK. Newson’s hope is that his sculptures will help people notice the real-life people out on the streets in this weather. “I’ve got to make a snow dog now,” he tells me, before returning to the cold.
You can find Chris Newson’s art at www.artistchris.co.uk.