Can you remember being 13? I can, just about. I was in an acutely awkward phase – desperate to be Shirley Manson, destined to be Velma Dinkley. It was a period defined by terrible home hair dyes, drinking alcopops in the park, and forging notes to avoid PE. 

I lived with my mum, brother and the best cat in the world. For all the agony of puberty and school, I was safe. But for Chris Ellis, 13 was the last time he had a home. He is now 32.

I’m talking to him in Sheffield Cathedral, a splendid yet solemn vista on a grey, drizzly day. We’re sharing a pew, listening to an orchestra rehearse snatches of Pink Floyd. In a bizarre turn, I’m taken back to my uncle’s funeral 20 years ago, watching his coffin disappear behind the crematorium curtain to the strains of Mr Blue Sky by ELO. In 2024, why are we hearing Pink Floyd in a cathedral? Well, it’s a press call for the Paradox Orchestra who are set to perform at Sheffield Cathedral in May and July with bespoke arrangements of Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac. The performances will raise money for The Archer Project, based at the cathedral, which supports homeless people in Sheffield.

Mikey Sluman by Amy Stone

Ellis, who describes himself as long-term homeless and a recovering addict, first came into contact with the project when he was using drugs and stealing every day to fund his habit. Via The Archer Project, he has gained skills, confidence and the desire to “give something back”’, which is why he now volunteers with them five days a week as he works towards paid employment.

Ellis is nervous. He doesn’t want his photo taken and I think the only reason he has agreed to talk to me is because my basic set-up (a notepad I’ve already dropped in a puddle and a cracked smartphone) means I’m the approachable alternative to the shiny broadcast crews. He would like to be a support worker because “it takes an addict to show an addict that it [recovery] can be done. Especially when you’re homeless. You’re that invisible person. You’re not part of the community.”

To say that Ellis has had a hard life would be an understatement, but he is positive. He believes that everything happens for a reason and that he was meant to go through it all “to show it can be done. Everyone said I was un-rehabilitationable, that I couldn’t change, that I was destined for prison my whole life.” I feel confident that Ellis will be a brilliant support worker and that he’ll continue to prove those people wrong.

After I talk to him, the orchestra plays a few haunting phrases of Comfortably Numb and I’m suddenly blinking back tears. All of the arrangements are original, including the additional R&B classics and disco numbers destined for events later this year. Tim Renshaw, CEO of The Archer Project, says that music is a great medium to bridge gaps between audiences that seem far apart.

“Everybody understands music at their own level. Homeless people can feel disempowered and disregarded by society. And for good reason as they often have traumatic childhoods and some really awful stories. Finding a place in the world involves things that you can deal with, and music is often that thing.” Renshaw cites an example of a homeless woman who took part in an exhibition that the project put together a few years ago – she shared a list of tracks that got her through the darkest times.

Rehearsal photo by Amy Stone

Meanwhile, Mikey Sluman, founder and creative director of Paradox Orchestra, says that the project is all about “breaking down barriers and creating amazing experiences for people”. In addition to the performances, Paradox runs Inspire Days where homeless people can access rehearsals and performances for free. “It’s about having new audiences experience an orchestra live,” he says, with several partnership venues and strands of the project for mental health and early years education available too.

I’m planning to attend the orchestra’s Sheffield dates and maybe persuade them to add alternative 90s to their repertoire. Mikey, if you need a Shirley Manson tribute act, I’m available.

Words and photos by Amy Stone


Paradox Orchestra performs Fleetwood Mac on July 12, 2024 at Sheffield Cathedral. Tickets are available from Eventbrite.