I slept on a pavement in central London on Thursday of last
week. I joined two companions who have done it, on and off, for
half their lives. For me, it was out of a commitment to being with
those I believe are closest to God's heart, in whom Jesus promises
to be made known. For them, it was out of necessity - or, perhaps
more accurately, a defiant, resourceful determination not to let
the challenges of their lives subdue their spirit.
I met them through the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields,
which assists 200 people every day and 4000 every year. Most find
employment and housing; only a minority spend a second night out.
There is an even split between those who come from London, from the
rest of the UK, and from Europe (about 28 per cent each); and
slightly fewer from outside Europe. The alarming fact is that the
number of these rough sleepers has increased by 50 per cent in the
past 12 months. So I was joining a trend.
There is a hierarchy among those who sleep outside, as there is
elsewhere in life. My companions would not accept handouts,
although they took me to the places where food was easy to come by.
They would not sleep just anywhere, although they showed me people
who were doing so. They would not engage in anti-social behaviour:
on the contrary, they took me on a tour of baristas, shopkeepers,
and hoteliers who each owed them a favour, and were glad to help
out by minding a sleeping bag or offering some hot water.
My companions were adept, resilient people, who had found a way
to turn their wits into forms of protection and information which
the local business community were grateful for. This is a grey
economy: and these people, to survive, have had to learn how to
function within it.
What I had was precisely what most people who sleep rough do not
have: a network. As I prepared to go out that night, I was reminded
of Lord Mountbatten's remark about Gandhi: "You've no idea what it
costs to keep the old man in poverty." I had many people going out
of their way for me - most of all, my two companions, who patiently
took me under their wing.
These are people who have survived the worst that life can
bring: being a refugee, losing both parents when young, being
neglected by family, being ostracised because of racism, coming to
terms with an addictive personality. Their lives showed me the
panoply of pressures that finally force people on to the
Like more than 60 per cent of people who sleep outside, they had
been through a period in their life when they had been drinking six
or more units of alcohol a day. When you are as cold as we were
that night, and you are tormented in sleeplessness by memories of
betrayal, and worse, it is not hard to see why alcohol might seem a
The night out showed me that the greatest poverty is lack of
companionship. Almost 40 per cent of the people the Connection
encounters say that they spend their days entirely alone.
What the Connection offers people in this kind of crisis is help
to find housing, to begin work in the regular economy, to stabilise
their health, and to build their confidence. Indeed, the Connection
is continuing to work with my companions to find a route away from
But what I discovered in sleeping out is that the most important
thing is to be with people even in the worst places in their lives,
and to celebrate the wiles and resilience that make their lives
liveable at all. That night, my companions were not "the poor" or
"the homeless": they were my teachers.
Maybe, when I make the Christmas appeal next year, I will not be
saying: "This is what these people need from you," but: "See how
much these people have to give you."
The Revd Dr Samuel Wells is Vicar of St
Martin-in-the-Fields. To give to the Radio 4 St
Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal for the Homeless, phone 0800
082 82 84.