[Y]ou know what it’s like; record a television programme you’re interested in and then promptly forget it’s there. Recently I had a barrister in the cab and as we went through Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the evening I remarked that there were a lot homeless queuing up at the soup kitchen. His reply was that once he saw a family of Japanese tourists standing in line apparently thinking it was a quaint English tradition.
Well, when on the Knowledge I couldn’t help but notice the large number of rough sleepers in doorways at night, so when BBC 1 broadcast Famous, Rich and Homeless last June I recorded its two episodes, and like we all do with vagrants promptly forgot about it.
Then recently after the conversation with my passenger in Lincoln Inn Fields I discovered the documentary on my hard drive, and watching it, found the experience a deeply unsettling experience.
They took five successful people who had between them 10 houses and a stately home and dumped them in various locations around London with nothing but the clothes they stood up in and the ubiquitous sleeping bag of a vagrant. Their first night sleeping rough as you would expect was difficult, except for Lord James Blandford who being an aristocrat and heir to Blenheim Palace he was suspected of booking into a hotel.
Their first day working the streets gave them a sense of the difficulties. The actor Bruce Jones who played Les Battersby was the most enterprising, by offering to photo tourists on Westminster Bridge while journalist Rosie Boycott felt shamed when a young girl gave her £40 and in doing so made her feel a fraud.
Comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli after a fruitless day seeking work ended up looking in dustbins for food and ex-tennis player Annabel Croft ending the day in tears.
Devised by the founder of the Big Issue, John Bird and Craig Last from Centerpoint, they questioned all five after a couple of days sleeping rough. All found after only three days they couldn’t find work and the public didn’t even look at them, even with money in their hands they would be refused admission to buy a cuppa from a greasy spoon.
After ‘the Marquis’ as John Bird referred to him walked away from the experiment, the remaining four were paired up with rough sleepers. If they thought their experiences so far was an emotional roller coaster it didn’t come close to how they felt after their new mentors told of their own personal experiences ranging from parental neglect, physical and mental abuse to prostitution.
Yet through it all many of the rough sleepers would look after each other, Annabel Croft was given a list of places where soup kitchens could be found, and Bruce Jones shared a derelict house with his partner.
Their last taste of homelessness was even worse as they were put into hostels for three days, one hostel was for alcoholic men to drink themselves to death and Bruce Jones was shown the paupers graveyard were all the residents of the hostel would end up.
At the end of 10 days Bruce was found to prefer to spend what little money he had on beer instead of feeding himself, Annabel played the angel of mercy while continually worrying for her own personal safety. Rosie a reformed alcoholic was a physical and emotional wreck within three days, but fared better than Lord Blandford who didn’t even last through the first night. Hardeep seemed to fare the best until he started having an unreasonable row with his mentor over a very trivial matter.
The conclusion of this reality programme has to be: Anyone of us could end up on the streets and once there nobody notices or acknowledges your existence, and within days your scruffy appearance bars you from cafes and making an honest living. More importantly, within days you have lost your dignity, self respect and your honesty.
The title of this post is Rosie Boycott’s conclusion, who has written about her experiences in far more emotive terms than I could.