Ed Stafford is an adventurer and an explorer – the former army officer was the first person recorded as walking the full length of the Amazon. For a new three-part documentary on Channel 4, Stafford spent two months sleeping rough in Manchester, London and Glasgow.
During an experiment in which he spent time begging in central London, he was, he says, alarmed by the amount of money he was being given.
At The Big Issue, we have been at the forefront of fighting poverty and homelessness for more than a quarter of a century, giving people a hand up and providing long-term support to those facing homelessness or in insecure housing.
Stafford’s new series walks a fine line but comes out on the right side of sharing stories of people who have fallen through society’s increasingly patchy safety net rather than treating homelessness as a survival challenge (which was our initial fear).
How has the situation got to this, why are there so many people on the street?
He meets mainly entrenched, long-term homeless people, many with addiction issues, and talks about their lives without exploring in depth the structural causes of homelessness – from lack of affordable housing provision to the rollout of Universal Credit and reduction in provision for mental health care and youth services due to austerity.
We had some big questions for him.
The Big Issue: What were you trying to illuminate by making this documentary?
Ed Stafford: Like everyone, I have seen homelessness rise over the last years. And it seemed to be getting worse faster. How has the situation got to this, why are there so many people on the street? I thought it would be a huge challenge to sleep rough for 60 days to try and find out a little bit more about this world.
But everything has to be put massively in context. I didn’t have any of the mental strains that somebody who is genuinely sleeping rough has. I had a wife and a little boy to go back to and I could call it quits at any point and go home, with the security of knowing I had a nice house to go home to.
Did you want to highlight the problem, find solutions or meet people and tell their stories?
We are not claiming we are going to solve homelessness, although you cannot help thinking about it when you are immersed in that world. But it was more to tell people what life is like on the street and show a very human face of homelessness. The aim was to depict the sharp end of homelessness, the rough sleeping rather than people in temporary accommodation or homelessness that is more hidden.
Did the people you met and what you saw match your imagined version?
I was surprised at the length of time that some people had been on the streets. And I hadn’t recognised the severity of addiction and how it impacts on day-to-day decision making. I naively assumed all your daytime energies would go into trying to sort out your accommodation.
If you put it in the context of being in a survival situation, they are doing what is needed to get through the day. The concept of saving money to put a deposit down on a flat is such an insurmountable thing and almost laughable.
What struck you as main causes of the recent massive rise in homelessness?
We saw the direct effect of people on less benefit due to Universal Credit,
Everything has to be qualified – I am an expeditioner, not an expert on this subject at all. But I was seeing was a lot of people with mental health problems and I believe funding has been cut over recent years. I saw lots of people in the grips of addiction. I saw lots of people who had come out of jail. Everyone is aware of the austerity measures over the last 10 years and it has had an impact.
We saw the direct effect of people on less benefit due to Universal Credit, we saw people who would have been in a mental institution 10 years ago who are now on the street and are extraordinarily vulnerable, all of those issues were apparent. The aim of the show was to open up a world by following individual stories. But they were issues that came up time and time again.
Clearly there isn’t enough housing. I remember in Manchester, looking up at all the empty buildings in the city. One homeless guy said ‘Why doesn’t the government tax vacant buildings more?’ I haven’t come across anybody who disagrees with him.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
You are showing people with severe substance abuse issues, particularly in Manchester with the Spice epidemic and a man with mental health issues taking Class-A drugs. How do you counter accusations that you are exploiting these people by putting them on primetime television?
It is primetime, but it is in primetime for a reason. This is an issue people need to know about. Everybody I spoke to gave full consent. And those that were under the influence when they were being filmed were all approached afterwards to give consent. As shocking as it is to see somebody completely frozen in the grips of Spice, it is almost more haunting to see people walking past and not even stopping to care or intervene.
There is no hiding the fact it is a horrific drug. I spoke to a guy who had a 12-year marriage to the love of his life and five children and had walked away from the family home to sit in a doorway and smoke Spice. You could see the pain in his eyes. He was ashamed of the decision he had made, but that was the strength of his addiction. I was advised by a guy in London, while he was using heroin, how dangerous Spice was.
I earnt considerably more than the Big Issue seller,
That was directly from a junkie with a needle in his hand. And I think the unfolding scene with Jeff in Manchester showed how tragic addiction can be. My hope is in seeing the footage people will be moved to see a very human side to addiction, rather than being judgmental. He has got caught up in something so powerful it has pretty much destroyed his life.
Did you have any interactions with Big Issue vendors?
When I was doing a begging experiment on Villiers Street in London there was a really nice lady selling The Big Issue. We would share cigarettes. She was selling The Big Issue about 15 metres away from me. I did one experiment when I was sitting down on my own and another when I was sitting down with a dog. When I was with the dog, the generosity of the British public – towards the animal, not me – meant I earnt considerably more than the Big Issue seller. It must be a struggle for people who are selling The Big Issue to stay motivated when they see people who aren’t taking such proactive steps just sitting in a doorway and getting more money.
Has your time sleeping rough changed what you think about giving money to people on the street?
Most homeless charities advise people not to give money. And now I would agree with them. There is enough support in terms of food handouts. So if I was wanting to help homeless people, I would want to give money to a charity that provided a bit of direction in terms of helping people to change their lives, whether that be through mental health care or addiction counselling or navigating through the systems to get back into accommodation.
Are we now in danger of thinking of rough sleeping as a normal part of life in the UK?
I do. It is great that in that normalisation there is a lot of goodwill towards homeless people. But that goodwill has to be married with constructive ways to help people change their own lives rather than charity that will enable people to continue a life on the street for longer. I don’t think even those in the grips of addiction want to stay on the streets for an extended period of time.
Is there anything else you learned?
I genuinely think the one thing that seemed to be missing in so many of these people’s lives was unconditional love. I don’t think anyone ends up on the street unless you have burned your bridges with pretty much everyone you have ever known. You will go from sofa to sofa before you choose a doorway. So I can’t help but feel like we are wrong to advocate such independent lives where we live in such small family units where if something does go wrong you can fall through the cracks and end up on the streets.
60 Days on the Streets starts March 14 at 9pm on Channel 4