Culture

Julia Bradbury: Anyone can end up homeless – but we can all offer a hand up

Julia Bradbury says that her week spent sleeping rough made her want to learn more about how society can help the homeless...

Julia Bradbury in Famous, Rich & Homeless

The smell of urine kept wafting over me as I wrestled to find a comfortable position on the hard floor. I tried to tuck the scarf that I’d pulled over my eyes over my nose as well so I could escape the putrid stench. Piss never smells good. Certainly not when it’s been fermenting for God knows how long in a passageway. This, though, is the least of your problems when you’re a rough sleeper.

I recently took part in a documentary – Famous, Rich and Homeless – for Sport Relief on BBC One, highlighting the issue of homelessness, which meant sleeping rough for a week. I’m not pretending I know everything about this ever-growing problem after such a short spell but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I don’t know why they call it ‘rough sleeping’ because you don’t sleep.

What I realised is that when you live on the streets you very quickly become invisible

After just a couple of nights, the sleep deprivation took effect, alongside the bad diet and humiliation of begging for money. I began to understand how hard life without a place to call home really is. You become physically and mentally drained, as well as grubby. Stolen moments in an accessible McDonald’s loo don’t really amount to a freshen up but the chance to brush your teeth and relieve yourself anywhere but the streets is welcome. Above all else, what I realised is that when you live on the streets you very quickly become invisible. And that’s a reality for thousands of people across the UK.

My brief experience made me want to learn more about homelessness and what we can do to help people who exist on pavements and in ‘hostiles’, as the hostels are known. The response to the programme has been overwhelming. Millions tuned in, and hundreds of thousands of pounds have been raised for various homeless charities across the country.

So when the BBC asked me to present another appeal on behalf of a charity trying to help the homeless in an inventive way, how could I say no?

The charity, Church Housing Trust, helps homeless people rebuild their lives, whether it’s with basics like a towel and a toothbrush when they first arrive in a hostel or invaluable training to get them into work.

During filming I met people who’ve really benefited from the projects they fund. My own experience showed me how easily and quickly your confidence can be damaged living on the streets. So I was fascinated to hear about a project called Street Buddies, which gives homeless people a chance to regain some of that sense of self-worth.

Co-ordinated day-to-day by an organisation called Riverside Care and Support, Street Buddies are former homeless people who now volunteer. They go out in pairs on shifts to build relationships with entrenched rough sleepers. In many cases these are people who are distrustful of the services and turn down offers of help. What the Street Buddies bring is the credibility of knowing about homelessness first hand.

They take it gently, approaching people for a chat and maybe a coffee. They make it clear they’re simply there to talk and offer reassurance

As Buddies Dave and Richard explained to me, they take it gently, approaching people for a chat and maybe a coffee. They make it clear they’re simply there to talk and offer reassurance. If someone agrees to go to a night shelter or see a doctor, it is a really positive result.

As well as building their own skills and independence in the Street Buddies project, Dave and Richard told me about the paid Grow (Giving Real Opportunities for Work) traineeships they have both been selected for. These involve 10 months’ training as support workers in hostels, where they gain experience which equips them for employment in the future.

I’ve learnt a huge amount about homelessness and the issues behind it since my short time on the streets but one fact is certain: homelessness can happen to anyone.

And there are all kinds of ways we can help, whether it’s volunteering, buying a Big Issue or donating money to a charity like Church Housing Trust that gives a second chance to people who’ve lost hope. I made some new friends during my time sleeping on the streets in London, and I experienced real human kindness when I was out there. There are so many people who care, so please give a second thought to that lump in a doorway next time you pass by. Beneath the dirty clothes and ragged sleeping bag is a human being.

Photo: Julia Bradbury © Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon

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