How to

16 December 2016

Meet James Beavis, the Student Sleeping Rough in London for 31 Days


This winter, James Beavis, a medical student from the University of Aberdeen, is fundraising for Crisis, one of Britain’s leading homelessness charities, by living, begging and sleeping on the streets of London for 31 days between 9 December and 9 January. On the first Wednesday of the campaign, I travelled to James’ spot on Regent Street for an interview, hoping to learn more about the cause and to understand how he’s managing to stay warm, dry and safe during what has to be one of the toughest fundraising challenges I’ve encountered.

The project itself is called ‘Homeless at Christmas’. At the time of the interview, its Facebook page had over 2,400 likes; its videos had gained 55,000 views; and the campaign had reached 180,000 people on the site. Its fundraising target was £25,000; and James had managed to raise over £6,000 in five days. However, whilst he claims the campaign is partly designed to raise awareness, which could help ameliorate what he terms the ‘dehumanisation’ of homeless people in Britain, he is also quick to stress that the best way for people to help counteract homelessness is through monetary donations to charity (which can be made through the project’s fundraising page, here).

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

When I arrived, the weather wasn’t too bad. I’d forgotten, in fact, how much warmer London can be compared to other parts of the country; I could even unzip my coat. Unfortunately, however, the weather that day was exceptional. Over the prior five nights, James had been sleeping in heavy fog, rain and extremely cold temperatures, which dropped as low as 2 degrees Centigrade.

‘People die in these conditions’, he’d written in a social media post the previous day. Indeed, from the first, this project has seemed something different to gutsy: genuinely dangerous.

The first thing I saw of James was a red-clad figure in a Santa Claus hat scribbling frantically on a big piece of cardboard (one of his begging signs): “Home is where the heart is,” it said. “I may have no home, but I do have a heart.” It’s good to see he’s keeping up cheerful appearances.

James hasn’t told anyone he’s ‘not really homeless.’ So, the sideways looks and narrowed eyes we were getting in the five minutes we spent walking to his sleeping spot, where James had promised to show me the ropes and explain what he gets up to during the day, were genuine. The worst thing about homelessness, he says, is neither the cold nor isolation, but the constant threat of violence.

‘People just don’t care….it’s so scary being out here. I did six years of MMA boxing…I feel comfortable handling myself usually…but for the first two nights I slept in my gel [boxing] gloves.’

The cold is indeed a constant worry: but the way in which James is dealing with it is affected at every turn by the obstacles and insecurities uniquely associated with being a homeless person.


Clothing

When I asked James what he’d been wearing to stay dry, he told me the most important piece of equipment is his coat.

‘It’s a snowboarding coat,’ he said. ‘It’s not particularly thick because it’s an all-year-round one, but what it does have are these.’ He pulled out the thermal lining beyond the sleeves to reveal thumb holes, which provide a seal at the wrist to keep warm air in. The coat also has a waterproof outer layer and a hood: which, he told me, keeps his head warm and shields his face; important, as it allows him to look more intimidating when drunk people come his way during the night. He added that he’s donned a thermal layer under his clothes.

‘The key is layering,’ he says. Ideally, he’d rotate the thermals, in order to stay warmer and keep sweat in check; but he’s struggled to find a place to organise himself to change. He tells me he hasn’t yet washed, meaning his choice to keep his hair is problematic. Were it summer, he told me, he’d shave it off; but it’s warmer to keep it in winter, so he’s chosen to put up with the relative discomfort.


Night


At the sleeping spot, James shows me around. He’s sleeping underneath scaffolding; which provides relatively good shelter, save for the rainwater which leaks through gaps in the boards, and the falling chalk dust which awoke him one particularly rough morning. He sleeps on top of several layers of corrugated cardboard; although he worries they’ll be taken away in his absence. The layers help greatly in keeping his body off the concrete, which he tells me can draw heat away from a person extremely quickly. Humans lose half their body heat through the ground when they sleep. When I ask about the thinner cardboard leaning on a lamppost nearby, he explains: ‘it’s too thin to be desirable.’

Corrugated cardboard is softer and warmer: so more likely to get swiped.

When sleeping, James says his coldest body parts are his lungs. Inhaling cold air lowers his core temperature, and exacerbates their already fragile state; gradually filling, as they are, with sediment, thanks to London’s high levels of pollution.

One of the most shocking things I learn, however, regards his sleeping bag, which ‘should take me to zero degrees,’ he says. ‘But I can’t do it up.’

This isn’t a case of equipment failure, however. In a recent video posted to the project’s Facebook page, James explained that it’s a conscious decision, taken on the word of a homeless friend he consulted before embarking on the project.

‘He said to me, “if I can give you one bit of advice it’s this: sleep with your sleeping bag open at all times. Because when someone sets fire to you, you can get out of it easily”…I do feel scared, so tonight I’m sleeping with it definitely open and I’m just going to have to deal with the cold.’


Day
  
In the morning, he tells me he wakes up and exercises to get his blood circulating. He does three different types of press-ups, along with chin-ups on the scaffolding and sit-ups on his cardboard bed. He’s also bought a skipping rope with him, which he uses in a park nearby; and he wears his (very heavy) rucksack when doing squats. Nonetheless, like the hood on his coat, he’s also aware these activities have more benefits than just keeping him warm: they also help him look intimidating; a positive in terms of pre-empting threats.

Still, he tells me he’s finding that, as the days pass and fatigue sets in, he’s able to do less exercise than when he started. It’s understandable, considering how little food he’s been eating.  

However, he does manage to get hold of some sustenance; which he’s using resourcefully to keep himself warm. James explains the staff of a nearby coffee shop have been amongst the most helpful people he’s encountered. Despite them not knowing that he’s fundraising, ‘they say “hello”, they’re nice, they know I have my own cup…they’ve treated me like a normal person,’ he says.

‘In fact, they’ve given me opportunities like food, a free cup of boiling water just to take out with me; it doesn’t cost them anything, but that’ll keep me warm for two hours…I’m not drinking it for the taste.’

Sundays also feature carol services at a local church; which James attends to warm up and get a free mince pie. The Strand also plays host to a free hot soup service, organised by various different groups; which James says he doesn’t want to attend just yet, as he’s reluctant to deprive people who actually are homeless of food. 

‘But food,’ he says ‘isn’t just about eating something to warm you up; it’s also about going somewhere to sit.’ With begging money, for example, he says he can buy the right to sit in McDonald’s, as the breakfast porridge and coffee are cheap. Being indoors is very important.

When I ask him what he thinks of people giving food to homeless people, he smiles as if it’s a question he’s encountered before.

‘It’s better than giving nothing,’ he says, ‘but I think the most important thing is acknowledging somebody.’

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

Helping to redress the social stigma surrounding homelessness is one of the many things James is working towards with the project this month. By raising awareness through documenting his experiences on social media platforms, he hopes to help people understand what it is like to live on the streets. However, the fundamental goal of the campaign is fundraising: in order to fundamentally redress the issue, he says, people’s good will only goes so far.

‘You get a lot of messages saying the words “inspirational” and “hero”…but it’s actually quite upsetting, because people do this every single day; and the people who are the real heroes are the ones who are actually out there doing it.’

The way to change that, he says, is to change people’s lives in a tangible, quantifiable way.

You can donate to Crisis via the project’s fundraising page, here.
Follow James’ progress on Facebook, here.
Use the hashtag #Homelessatxmas or follow James’ activities on Twitter, here.


James Stannard

James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.