60 Days on the Streets starts Thursday 14th March at 9pm on Channel 4
How did 60 Days on the Street come about?
Like many, I have walked past the growing numbers of homeless on our streets with concern, and wondered why the issue is getting so much worse, and what can be done to help those affected. This project was an opportunity to find out for myself.
How did the reality of the experience compare to what you expected?
The experience was surprising and shocking on almost every level.
Some things were easier than I expected, such as finding food. It turns out that there’s plenty of food on the streets for rough sleepers, especially in London. And there was a real sense of community among some of the homeless people that I met.
The thing that shocked me the most was that many of the people I met were resigned to their situation, and no longer attempting to escape it. I had assumed no one would want to be on the streets if they had a choice – but actually, some of the community prefer life on the streets living on one’s wits, to one in temporary accommodation navigating the benefits system which can be very complex and difficult.
And begging seemed to be more lucrative than I ever imagined. It was common in London for people to make £100 or £200 in an evening, which is more than the average person earns in work.
Were there any uplifting moments?
What became quite apparent was that in a city where no one communicates, such as London, there is a complete emotional barrier between people.
In complete contrast, the homeless community do speak and acknowledge each other. It is the one community in London that does interact, almost to the point that it’s like a little village. Everyone says hello and knows each other’s business. I found that surprising, and very touching.
I also think there’s a sense of loyalty amongst people who are sleeping rough. They look out for each other in a way that you would if you were going into battle.
On the flip side of that, everyone is watching their own back and you must be careful of who you trust.
Tell us more about what shocked you about the experience?
I think I was shocked by the amount of food that was available. I thought I was going to lose loads of weight and it was going to be harder to physically survive – but in fact, there was an abundance of people wanting to help, in all three cities I visited.
In Glasgow, I witnessed 26 volunteers handing out food one night, and there were only two rough sleepers there. I even met one homeless man who complained the public “overfeed” him.
Having said that, I’m conscious that I didn’t spent much time on the streets, compared to those I met, some of whom had been there for years. And it wasn’t a healthy diet they were getting: it was a lot of fast food and sandwiches. Nor did I have addiction problems, unlike most of the homeless community, which is when life becomes very difficult.
How did your body physically change throughout the experience?
In terms of my health and weight, I’ve put on about 5kg of fat – because a lot of what passers-by gave me was fast food, sandwiches and burgers. I’ve since had a blood test and I’ve got a high risk of developing cardio vascular illnesses if I continue this diet.
How did your experiences in London, Manchester and Glasgow differ?
Manchester was shocking. It’s the location that was most manic. The drug, spice, has laid waste to sections of the homeless community, and you see them in the main squares, frozen like zombies.
I struck up more friendships in London, but there was also a bigger contrast between rich and poor. I was living on the Strand, near all the theatres. I remember sitting in the doorway of Halifax and hordes of people coming out of the Adelphi Theatre. The triviality of what these people were talking about really struck me. I just remember getting almost angry at how inane the conversations were.
You met and spent time with a number of homeless people during the experience. Can you tell us a bit about that?
It was an incredible privilege for me to have these people open up about their lives and to give me an insight into what life was really like for them on the streets. I became genuinely close to some of them.
Having said that, it’s very clear that not everything is at it seems on the streets. I met some fascinating people with extraordinarily touching and heart-breaking stories. However, some of these stories turned out not to be true and some of the untruths became worse the more they unravelled. It was quite an emotional rollercoaster.
Is there a hierarchy within the community? Did you feel like an outsider?
Absolutely. Just like any social circle, there were more influential people and there were less influential people. Some people were territorial – and defended their patches aggressively.
However, it’s not structured in an organised manner. It’s just those that are a bit more savvy or confident or a bit more boisterous are the ones that end up ruling the roost.
What has the overall experience taught you about the homeless crisis? Are there any common misconceptions about homelessness that you’ve had further insight to?
I’m now quite cynical, sadly – which I never thought would be the outcome of this project.
But after spending this time with the community, I wouldn’t give directly to homeless people anymore, sadly. I think that there is plenty of food available for them, and so a lot of any cash they get is spent on drugs and alcohol. I do worry the public enable their lifestyle to some degree, with all their generosity.
But despite that, obviously I feel huge compassion for these people, because no one grows up wanting to end up on the streets. At a deep level, it’s not a lifestyle any of them would have chosen for themselves – even if now they are resigned to it. All of them have been driven to the streets by tragedy in their past - whether it’s something that happened in their childhood, a parent that’s an addict or an abusive partner.
I don’t believe the solution is cash handouts – but I do believe that they need a great deal more support and help than they are currently getting, to escape their situation.