Last week I watched 60 Days on the Streets; the first one-hour documentary in a series of three being shown on Channel 4. The first hour focused on Ed Stafford’s few days sleeping rough in the center of Manchester and showed a number of rough sleepers, giving a minor glimpse into their daily routines.
Photograph: Rob Parfitt/Channel 4
I don’t have a view of the documentary series after having watched just one hour of a 3-hour series. But I did definitely feel as a viewer that the first hour nudged towards suggesting that many people are choosing homelessness as a lifestyle. And, I’ve heard this before – that some people are ‘choosing to be homeless’.
Now I’ve only had the privilege of leading YMCA Humber for 3 months and so my knowledge of street homelessness is limited when compared to some. But what I do know is this – it really does come down to what we mean by ‘choice’. There will of course be a minority of individuals that choose to sleep outdoors, but my perception is that this outdoor lifestyle is for the minority. Having slept rough for just one night this year, (on the coldest night of the year I believe, the 1st February), I am not convinced that many people would choose that life day in day out, week in week out, sometimes for years. I certainly wasn’t able to sleep, and it was a long, hard night. I had the luxury of going home in the morning to a warm shower and a comfortable bed, but still my bones felt cold and stiff for days.
I think that what we actually mean by ‘choosing a life of homelessness’ is that somehow people end up homeless, for various reasons and they fall into a cycle of homelessness; perhaps because this is easier than facing up to their demons, perhaps it is because they don’t know where to start to try to put their life back on track, perhaps it’s because they’ve started to believe that they are worthless because, (based on recent footage and stories in the media), that is certainly how some homeless people have been treated.
It will be interesting to see what image the next two hours of the documentary portrays. I will watch the series with an open mind. What I do know though, is that from what I’ve seen through the support that YMCA Humber provides to our residents and from the single night of sleeping rough that I endured to raise funds for YMCA, not many choose this way of life. Are we really suggesting that many people choose not to be in touch with their loved ones, choose to sleep in the cold and rain, to not have the comfort of a warm shower, to not have their basic human needs within their control. I’m guessing that for some, perhaps with mental health needs or past life experiences that you and I don’t want to imagine, sleeping rough is easier than taking the steps to secure a room. Maybe, many homeless people find themselves too vulnerable or disempowered to make a change for themselves and then find themselves labelled as ‘choosing to be homeless’.
Raising the profile of homelessness in Britain has to be a good thing; so that as a nation we can start to understand better and address the problem. But whilst we do that, let’s keep an open mind and try not to judge.
Take care all, Debbie