There is little about the subject of homelessness which raises the spirit. The lives of homeless people are frequently bleak, often mundane; short on glamour. Consequently programmes about the homeless are rarely shown on prime-time TV. Instead they are shuffled off to the early morning or late night slot. Famous, Rich and Homeless, broadcast over two evenings in June at 9.00pm on BBC1 was the exception. It tracked the experiences of five celebrities as they faced the most extreme form of homelessness: rough sleeping. The celebrity guinea pigs were the journalist Rosie Boycott, the actor Bruce Jones of Coronation Street fame, the presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli and ex-tennis player Annabel Croft. There was a fifth celebrity, the Marquess of Blandford who, to universal derision, survived only a short time on the street before throwing in the towel and escaping to an up-market Chelsea hotel. The second of the programmes drew an impressive 4.9 million viewers.
Over the last twenty years the portrayal of rough sleeping, whether through the medium of television or newspaper features has stuck to a rigid and stultifying format in which the following combination is a standard, undeviating requirement. Firstly, the story must emphasise the sheer horror of rough sleeping. Scenes of deprivation and suffering are de rigueur. Secondly, on this foundation must be built the notion that there is no way out. The system is broken, nothing has changed since the time of Orwell, possibly even of Dickens. Finally, the homeless people, brutalised by an uncaring society must be seen as damaged, passive victims with whom we can sympathise and feel solidarity.
The programme-makers who produced Famous, Rich and Homeless adhered to this orthodoxy with impressive resoluteness. Throughout these two compelling programmes they judiciously skirted the various disobliging truths that sought to undermine this portrayal. They were assisted in their efforts by the programme’s expert ‘talking head’ John Bird, the outspoken co-founder of the Big Issue who is not afraid to wears his opinions on his sleeve. These include the view that too much money goes to emergency, sticking plaster services instead of into prevention and that the homeless who refuse help on the street are unwell and, if necessary, should be compelled against their will to leave the street and taken to a place of safety.
In the first programme, the sheer horror of sleeping rough was brought home forcefully to the viewing public. The shaken celebrities were asked to spend six long days and nights on the streets of London, trying to survive as a genuine rough sleeper would be expected to. After three days help arrived when they were teamed up with ‘buddies’, each of whom had a lengthy experience of sleeping rough. The developing relationship between celebrity and homeless person provided some gripping television. At the end of each day, talking to camera, there would be a heartfelt soliloquy from the celebrity describing the bleakness of their experience, how they quickly became invisible to ‘normal’ people and hadn’t managed to eat properly, change their clothes or take a shower.
From the position of organisations working with rough sleepers in London like my own, the kindest take on this carefully crafted portrait of suffering and destitution is that it is unthinkingly misleading. A less generous view would be that it is wilfully manipulative. Within a quarter mile of the sites selected as places to bed down by our scattered celebrities are some excellent day centres for the homeless, including the Passage in Victoria, Connection at St Martin’s at Trafalgar Square and London Embankment Mission at Waterloo. These are places where homeless men and women can not only get a hot meal, shower and change of clothes but also housing advice and help in getting off the street. But spruced up celebrities discovering routes away from rough sleeping are available and that responses to homeless people in 2009 are frequently both humane and practical was not what the programme makers had in mind when they set their destination in advance of this voyage of discovery.
To keep up this pretence required some drastic editing. The week after the programme was transmitted I met the Chief Executive of a homeless day centre at a function and asked him why the celebrities weren’t encouraged to use his day centre. His answer was that they were, and one of them had. A distraught Annabel Croft attended his day centre and a considerable amount of time was spent by a day centre staff member consoling her and offering options so that she, and her two companions, could leave the street. This inconvenient interaction did not make the final cut.
Theme two, that the homeless are trapped by an uncaring system, bolstered by the casual disregard of the public, is heavily dependent on portraying rough sleepers as forgotten and ignored. ‘Our hidden shame’ whispered a reflective Rosie Boycott. The reality is that in London and many other cities outreach teams are out working with rough sleepers every night of the year, making contact and helping them get off of the street. So it was of no surprise to me that Thames Reach’s team which covers Waterloo should quickly come across Annabel Croft and her companions sleeping rough in the vicinity of Waterloo station. On approaching Annabel the outreach worker was disconcerted to find that there was an entourage which included a crew with fluffy microphones and other filming paraphernalia. It was clear that Annabel didn’t need our help.
Nor did the two rough sleepers with her, both of whom were well know to street outreach teams working in central London. The viewing public would be forgiven for thinking that these two individuals had suffered many weeks on the street and were desperate to escape the indignities of sleeping rough on sodden cardboard, under thin blankets. In fact, one already had a place in emergency accommodation and the other had been made frequent offers of services and accommodation over a number of months which he had rejected.
In the second programme, that part of the pre-conceived structural edifice of Famous, Rich and Homeless which required services available to the homeless to be depicted as either non-existent or inadequate began to totter. Put another way, a very large cat was struggling to get out of the bag and had to be forcibly restrained. Firstly, Annabel’s commendable efforts to help one of her companions come off of the street foundered when it was confirmed by the police that he was well known to outreach teams, had been given considerable assistance in the past and was aware of the services available and how to access them.
Then, in ominous tones, John Bird informed the gathered group of celebrities that they were about to face an experience that could be even more challenging than sleeping on the street: they were going to stay in hostels for the homeless. John has a particular view on hostels. He considers that many are dangerous places where people with drink and drug problems are thrown together, producing chaos and mayhem. In our conversations on this subject, he often refers to them as ‘hostiles’. And it is true that hostels represent a basic, short-term solution; an urgent response to the extreme situation of sleeping rough. Tentatively, our celebrities arrived at the various hostels where they had been promised a bed. All seemed grateful for the decent, comfortable, single rooms they were allocated where they could rest, eat and get cleaned up and relieved to meet the concerned and supportive staff in charge.
And what about the homeless themselves? The interactions between the celebrities and their homeless companions were frequently enlightening. The warmth that developed between some was genuine and moving. The damaged lives were illuminated. The grinding battle with alcohol and drug addiction laid bare, the desperate craving for human contact exposed and the broken family relationships explained. Yet there was nothing in Famous, Rich and Homeless that offered any serious hope that homeless people can successfully escape sleeping rough, tackle debilitating alcohol and drug problems, find employment, build loving relationships, get their lives back together again. Thus, Bruce Jones finds himself in a hostel for alcoholics. He likes them but is understandably horrified by the hopelessness of their situation. ‘This is a suicide hostel, they are here to die’ he memorably bellows.
79 of Thames Reach’s salaried workforce are former homeless people, indistinguishable now from the rest of the staff group except when they choose to let others know about their experience of homelessness, when they become inspirational role models for those on the journey away from homelessness and addiction or wrestling with poor mental health. Many were once on the street fighting their demons, living hand-to-mouth. But they sure ain’t now.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Famous, Rich and Homeless kept everyone happy. The BBC can claim that they had shone a light on an area of life in 21st Century Britain that is usually ignored. The programme-makers can point to the evidence that almost five million people tracked the celebrities as they faced destitution on the street. The celebrities themselves, throwing themselves into the arms of their loved ones as they leave the nightmare of ten days of homelessness behind them will have enough dinner party anecdotes to last a whole year. The public response was almost entirely favourable, so homelessness charities can expect an increase in donations. A reminder that public giving relies less on an understanding of what charities do and more on a visceral need to give as a form of expiation.
The losers, I fear, are the homeless. They deserved a programme that would shatter the prevailing orthodoxy. One showing something which I am privileged to witness, week in and week out; namely, how men and women, against the odds, can escape the grimmest situations through their own determination and resourcefulness. Rich, Famous and Homeless was, emphatically, not this programme.