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Graham Stanier - Life on the streets

 Ireland's Big Issue 05 October 2019

Graham Stanier, of the popular UK chat show Jeremy Kyle, took to the streets to find out how the homeless really live. (1639 Words) - By Samantha Bailie

Ireland's Issues

Jeremy Kyle (left) and Graham Stanier (Photo courtesy of Ireland’s Big Issue)

Popular British daytime talk show The Jeremy Kyle Show is famed for its confrontational style and breaking boundaries. The show recently sent its resident psychotherapist Graham Stanier - fondly known on the programme as 'The Genius' - to live on the streets of West London for 24 hours to experience the public's true reaction to those living on the streets. Ireland's Big Issue's Samantha Bailie asked him about his 'homeless' experience.

In the special edition of the show, Graham was sent to shadow two homeless men, Dave (1) and Dave (2) and 'walk in their shoes' for 1 day and 1 night. Producers attached a small hidden camera to Stanier to accurately record the public's reactions.

Samantha Bailie: What led to you experiencing life on the streets?

Graham Stanier: The first time I knew anything about an investigation into homelessness was when I walked into our weekly production meeting and saw an idea scribbled on a white board - "Graham sleeps rough on the streets." I never thought for a moment that it would make it to the production stage. At the time, the show producers had long wanted to film beyond the confines of the studio but to do so takes a lot of additional time, planning and money. It was not a snap decision and that initial idea took a lot of time to properly flesh out and realise. In general terms the idea was spawned from the words of a few guests that said things like "Yes but what do you really know about homelessness - what experience of it have you really had?" At that point, you know they are right, and that there are indeed gaps in your knowledge that needed to be filled. To be honest with you, prior to the investigation I didn't know very much about the harsh realities of life on the streets other than seeing people sleeping rough in subways and doorways on my way to work or after an evening out, but I had always wondered about their back stories. I knew that people became homeless for all sorts of reasons but I had no understanding of the reality of being homeless, and as I don't do fake empathy it was very important for me to live the life of a homeless person - even for what admittedly was a very short period of time, just so that I could truly empathise with the homeless and the situations they found themselves in.

SB: I recall from the show you and one of the Dave's walked an awful lot. Was that to stay warm or to find a safe place to sleep?

GH: We just walked almost constantly for 8 hours before finding a place to bed down for the night. In the early part of the evening it was a very sociable event as we were mainly socialising with the homeless community around the borough, and they were exchanging stories about their experiences on the street since they last met, sharing information about where NOT to bed down for the night because of a past bad experience, where to get cardboard bedding, nearest off license, places to avoid and so on. In the later part of the night however we were walking around to keep warm and looking for a suitable place to sleep for the night. The place we finally slept rough in was the 4th location that we had checked out. I remember feeling physically and emotionally drained by the constant walking in search of a safe place to sleep, but I did understand that finding a safe place to sleep is a priority.

SB: What was the worst thing about the experience?

GH: Sleeping rough… the contrast between the warmth of the day and the coldness of the night is one that affected me on many levels. Through the day there are places to visit to try and secure accommodation for the night, places you can socialise, be warm and hopefully get fed. By night, if accommodation has not been secured, many homeless people are very much left on their own to fend for themselves, in freezing cold and what can be very unforgiving streets. With no help, no one else around and no daylight, food or warmth the night can drag on forever, and what sleep you can get is always uncomfortable and punctuated by fear, not least of a physical attack.

SB: Were you scared?

GH: I recognise my "first hand experience of homelessness" was cushioned immeasurably by the help I received from the two Daves who guided me and, most importantly, the knowledge that this was just a temporary experience that would end when I went back home at the end of the allotted schedule. What scared me most was the realisation that homelessness can strike anyone from any walk of life at any time, and when it does it can unravel the whole fabric of your life in no time at all. The speed, with which you can go from being a fully functioning member of society to an outsider, feeling like an outcast, really came through from many of the people I met. Beyond that, the speed with which many turn to drink or drugs just to get through the days and bring on a rough nights sleep that bit quicker was also shocking. Understandable but shocking, and so sad - as the addictions that grow seem only to push anyone on the streets even further away from society.

SB: Is it possible to stay warm and obtain a decent night of sleep?

GH: "I followed the advice of Dave and Dave before I bedded down for the night, and wore 4 layers of clothing, gloves, a hat and thick socks, and I slept in a cardboard box with two layers of cardboard beneath it, and eventually I fell asleep for a few hours. I then woke up in the middle of the night freezing, and I can honestly say I was frozen to the core, and it was impossible for me to get back off to sleep again because I was so cold. During the night Dave (1) also felt the cold and had gone for a walk to warm up, but Dave (2) slept throughout the night but maybe that's because he had a sleeping bag which had been provided for him by a homeless charity. I remember feeling totally miserable, vulnerable and lonely as I laid there frozen to the core.

SB: What have you taken away from the experience?

GH: A new appreciation of just how much effort it takes to survive sleeping rough on the streets. I would have been lost and quickly broken without the help I was given, and I was only homeless for 1 night! The sheer exhaustion that comes from endlessly walking to find a place to sleep, from being alert to all dangers that at any time could be life threatening, and from actually not getting much good sleep when it finally does come is overwhelming. After my 24 hours I felt completely drained; my mind had been blunted by the endless physical exertion required to wear myself out to actually get some sleep in the freezing cold. I saw there and then those who drink heavily for example, can do so as much to sleep or pass out each night as anything else.

SB: Did anything surprise you in a positive sense?

GH: To be fair, I was surprised by the amount of help available out there for homeless people. There are some fantastic, large scale organisations and charities but there are also a lot of generous individuals as well who go out of their way to give time, money and food to help those on the streets. I am genuinely privileged to have met these people.

SB: How does the experience affect you psychologically?

GH: Even in my short time on the streets I felt very vulnerable and exposed. I can see that the whole experience, if perpetrated, would chip away very quickly at your self esteem and confidence. Just imagine having nobody in a crisis, literally nowhere to run, no one to turn to. I would hate to be that alone on the streets that are at best dangerous, but more normally downright hostile to most homeless people. I encountered stories of homeless people being physically and verbally abused by the general public when they were sleeping rough, and in one case someone's sleeping bag was set on fire whilst they were sleeping. Other stories of being urinated on, and in one case a young women had been sexually abused. How can that not affect anyone psychologically? Sadly I also met individuals with serious mental and physical illnesses.

SB: What were some of the personal circumstances of some of the people you met whilst on the streets?

GH: I met people from a wide variety of backgrounds and many of them were intelligent and highly personable people, but all told a similar story about how they were victims of circumstance which had resulted in them being forced into homelessness. It was never a choice for them to be homeless. Some were on the streets because a significant relationship in their life had broken down resulting in them being evicted from their home, others had had their homes repossessed, some were escaping abusive relationships.

The two Dave's who chaperoned Graham, (one of whom had been homeless on and off since the aged of 2) are now in permanent accommodation. Unfortunately a happy ending is not always the case for people living rough, and we still have a percentage of people who look down their noses at our citizens living on the streets. Jesse Jackson once said "only look down on someone if it's to help him up".

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Originally published by Ireland's Big Issue. ©

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