(This article appeared in the Mirror UK Nov 23, 2002.)
I agreed to make the documentary series Skin Deep because I was curious.
I wanted to know what it felt like to sleep on the streets or what people thought of you when you were so big it was impossible to sit down. I wanted to know whether people thought big women were sexy or disgusting. I wanted to know whether people cared about the elderly and if they thought about growing old.
The final film, where I tried to experience homelessness, was the most harrowing. It was frightening, cold and depressing. The lack of sleep was draining and debilitating. It was an exercise in invisibility and isolation. I wasn't prepared for the absolute abject loneliness.
Dressed in clothes from the Salvation Army, I spent a week sleeping rough - on the streets of the West End, in the countryside where I slept in a disused farm building and in a hostel on the South Coast.
My main conclusion, which was repeatedly confirmed, is that there is no kindness out there. The hardest thing to attract from people wasn't money - it was human exchange.
We aren't kind to strangers in our culture. In other parts of the world, that's how a community is judged - on its behaviour towards travellers and the dispossessed.
As a homeless person in Britain you are ignored. People just don't want to get involved. They don't want to see you. The judgments start immediately - you are rejected as undesirable because you have so many layers of clothes on and look unruly. If you're old and homeless, you must be crazy or a drunk. If you're young, you're on drugs.
I was told to f*** off when I asked for change. I experienced a level of rudeness and hostility I had not expected. I felt vulnerable. I tried to stay as clean as possible, washing in public toilets, not wanting to seem threatening. But I looked homeless and that was enough for most people to look straight through me.
I was constantly warned to be alert at night. Many homeless people, especially women, barely sleep after dark. They sleep in libraries and public places during the day when it is safer. The darkness brings violence. You have no idea what to expect from the drunken men spilling out of clubs, or the young women with their taunts and nastiness.
Even at a hostel in Canterbury, I continued to feel frightened. I might have been warm, but I was even more afraid than on the streets. I had been told terrible things about women being raped in hostels.
THE night I slept in the countryside was the coldest of all. It was so cold it hurt. I'd found a space in an disused outbuilding.
I was sick of not washing. I had a kilo of dead skin under my tights. My hair was matted. I was exhausted.
Before filming, I had a romantic notion that sleeping outside in the country would be idyllic. It was the opposite. The farm building was full of broken glass, nails and rats. The isolation was terrifying.
On my travels, I seemed to surprise some of the people I met. They didn't seem to expect an articulate woman to reply. One guy said to me: "What's an educated woman like you doing on the street?" Yet many of the homeless people I met were articulate.
At the hostel where I stayed there were accountants, businessmen - people from all backgrounds. Many were the victims of relationships breaking up. Otherwise it seemed a combination of bad luck and bad judgment.
It often only takes a couple of weeks on the streets for someone to get used to being there. There are positive things too. You fall in very quickly with people - there is a great camaraderie. People find a new community. Many of the homeless people I spoke to explained there is a certain kind of freedom in not having any of the worries of the outside world.
Sitting there I found myself looking at buildings, looking at the sky. We so rarely get a chance to stop and look. But after a while the world seemed to pass by. The traffic, the people, it just became a kind of noise that had nothing to do with me. The deal was I had to live on what I earned begging. That was the hardest thing for me. I found it impossible. I hated the embarrassment of it. I hated the fact I didn't need to beg. I have a beautiful home.
Sam, the Big Issue vendor who acted as my guide, would say: 'You have to be more engaging. This is your business, think of it like that. You've got to be pushy. Make them laugh - ask if you can borrow a million quid.'
I couldn't do it. I was useless.
Before Sam and her boyfriend, Tom, offered to let me share their patch, I spent the day looking for a place to sleep. I didn't even realise you claim a patch. I had things stolen. Luckily Sam had warned me, make sure your socks and shoes are tied up or they'll get taken. The most startling thing for me, outside the indifference, were the lies. I went to a pub looking for cardboard and they said they didn't have any. They had stacks of it. It was only rubbish. Why did they begrudge me it?
I was shocked by how many ex-military people are homeless. Many have served our country only to find themselves out in the cold. They are good at surviving on the streets yet can't find an entry point into the system that could put a roof over their heads.
A lot of the people I met had alcohol or drug problems. You ask them why and they say: "Why not? Whisky will make you physically nourished and warmer. You'll do anything to get out of your head and away from this."
I met people with mental illness and people with depression who can't get medication because they don't have an address.
The problem was how to represent them honestly, knowing that at the end of the week I would be back sleeping at home.
Five years ago I travelled as a vagabond from Atlanta to New Orleans. I had no idea what real poverty was before that. But this was my own country and I didn't like what I found. The indifference of people to homelessness was a bitter experience.
But some of the people I met - Sam, Tom and the others who showed me around the West End or helped me find a place in a hostel - were a revelation.
Copyright 2002 MGN Ltd.