I have just been watching on BBC iPlayer the first in a new series titled: “Famous, Rich and Homeless”, where four well known, well off celebrities are cast onto the street and told to fend for themselves for a week, without money and nothing other than the clothes they are wearing. All this is part of BBC Sport’s Relief activities to raise awareness of some of the social needs in our society and money to support those doing something to help. While there are the unseen cameras, filming what is going on, and mentors, including those who are homeless and John Bird of “Big Issue” fame, the celebrities are left to their own devices and told to fend for themselves.
I am normally skeptical of programs like these because of the artificiality element, but there was enough that came out of this first episode to convince me this was a useful exercise, not least it helped to raise awareness of the plight of rough sleepers among those who otherwise would not be aware. I was long ago fascinated by George Orwell’s book “Down and out in Paris and London”, and had often felt this might be the sort of project I might one day take on myself. Other than rough sleeping by choice, in my twenties and thirties, as part of my backpacking, world travel experience, I have not done anything similar since, and to be quite frank it is not a prospect I would relish any more, knowing what I now know and not being in a fit enough condition. My family will testify that my working on a daily basis among those who are rough sleeping has made me more than a little empathetic to their plight and this has given me plenty of insight into what rough sleepers actually experience.
What became quite evident from the outset was that being thrown onto the street without anywhere to go is a shock the system, even though it is one that those who are placed in that predicament have had to adapt to. As far as our celebrities went, it was a distraught experience, although very instructive, and one even gave up after one night. Where the program scored is it gave a realistic insight into life on the streets, which given the challenge of presenting this in a balanced way was at least creditable. Issues like finding suitable accommodation, begging for money, alcohol and substance misuse, abuse by the public, the matter of safety, how to be occupied when on the streets, fighting the elements (rain and cold), the part played by hostels and churches, the various situations leading to rough sleeping, the hopelessness of the situation people were in and some of the bad decisions rough sleepers made, were all covered.
To a significant extent, much of this in my case was preaching to the converted, but given we have a new audience it was necessary. Where all this will lead, who can say? Having worked in the homeless arena for several years now, I am all too aware of the danger of compassion fatigue. The statistics are damming – homelessness is on the increase and there are all sorts of reasons for this, like a lack of affordable accommodation, the breakdown of the family, victims of the current austerity regime, loss of home or job, mental health issues and substance misuse. While there are a lot of commendable, compassionate and pragmatic responses to the whole shebang, the tendency of the “authorities” is still to wash their hands of the problems, be a hindrance and rationalize the status quo.
Last Saturday, it hit me as it often has that at my soup kitchen of the around fifty guests we served, many were in a bad place and the future looked anything but bright. Tomorrow, I prepare for my pen-ultimate session managing a church winter night shelter before we cease operations, only to resume again in November. There will be around twenty guests availing themselves of our overnight accommodation, food and hospitality. The prospect of many of these being back onto the street after next week is high, and that does not take into account those who are banned or won’t engage in the program for an assortment of reasons. That is the reality of life on the streets. Well done BBC and Sports Relief for bringing these matters to the attention of a wider audience. The need, a lot of it unmet, is great and there is much still to do. I hope the four celebrities and some of the viewers will join in with the response.