Dressed like a tramp in hand-me-down clothes, I stood in the heart of Soho. The West End was alive with cheery late-night revellers but I was alone and afraid.
I had no money, no phone, no watch and no clue as to how I was going to survive on the streets of London for the next ten days. I gripped a black bin liner full of moth-eaten jumpers as if it were a Louis Vuitton handbag full of cash. My only other possession was a sleeping bag – scant protection against the sub-zero nights.
In the days ahead, I lived among alcoholics and drug addicts. I slept in the doorways of haute-couture fashion shops, I ate charity handouts. I was stunned by the generosity and love shown to me by strangers willing to share what meagre money or food they had.
I faced the terror of a homeless man trying to stick a knife in my back and came to the conclusion that the world of Britain’s forgotten underclass doesn’t appear to have changed much since the days of Charles Dickens.
This was all a world away from the warmth of my beautiful six-bedroom home. Without wishing to sound smug, I live the life I dreamed of when I travelled the world as Britain’s No1 female tennis player.
These days I have a husband, Mel, and three gorgeous children, Amber, 15, Charlie, 13, and 11-year-old Lily. I combine the school run with a broadcasting career and running the Annabel Croft Tennis Academy, where we coach about 100 children after school.
So why was I shivering in Soho? I was taking part in that rare beast – a reality TV show with true substance. The forthcoming BBC series Famous, Rich And Homeless is a serious attempt to tackle a pressing social issue – the plight of people living on the streets.
Even so, I felt extremely emotional as I left my family to be briefed by John Bird, founder of The Big Issue magazine, which is sold on the streets by homeless people, and Craig Last, who worked with the homeless organisation Centrepoint.
Unease turned to panic when they produced a heap of tatty clothes for me and my fellow participants, journalist Rosie Boycott, writer Hardeep Singh Kohli, former Coronation Street actor Bruce Jones and Blenheim Palace heir James, Marquis of Blandford.
Normally I am a confident woman. But those hideous clothes took away all my self-esteem. I now realised I would not be able to walk into a bar to ask for a glass of water or to use the toilet. I had become a tramp.
After being warned by John that we would be ‘lonely, lost and dispirited,’ we were dropped, one by one, at separate locations across London.
This is my diary of my experiences on the street . . .
Night One: I had been in Soho for less than 15 minutes when a dirty, smelly drunk asked: ‘You all right, darling?’ Why had he chosen to speak to me? Then I realised: he saw me as just like him. His name was Peter and he had been homeless for 20 years. He advised me to head to Bond Street to sleep as it would be much quieter. He lifted my spirits – he’d given me a plan.I went to the loo in a McDonald’s – easy to sneak into at peak times. And in Bond Street, I found a really clean doorway, deep and wide with stone that reminded me of my kitchen at home. I wanted to get into my sleeping bag and shut out the world. But at street level, you are constantly aware of feet near your head. I couldn’t sleep as the stone step dug into my shoulders and hips. The thought of another nine days was daunting. At least, I reminded myself, unlike British soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq.
I was under no threat of being bombed.
Peter turned up in the night. He smelled of booze, but was still friendly. He left to find a lady friend who had Aids, saying nobody else would sleep with her. As he spoke, I couldn’t help looking at the open sores on his hands. Before he left, I asked him where to get food.
‘Darling, there’s a church near Trafalgar Square,’ he explained. Now I had a new plan. Peter was the first but, by no means the last, to show me kindness.
Day Two: It was still dark when I set out for Trafalgar Square. As I approached the soup kitchen behind St Martin-in-the-Fields church, I saw seven or eight people huddled together. One had on little more than a white shell suit and T-shirt. He wanted my sleeping bag – and had his eye on it all the time.
I also spoke to a lad with long hair and a guitar strapped to his back who kept hiding his face. He said he was called Alex and came from Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. He was well spoken and I sensed he had been abused, but all he would say was: ‘I can’t talk about it.’
He said he had run away and had no way out of life on the streets because he had no official identity – no driver’s licence, no passport, no credit cards, no address. That was a shocking revelation to me. On so many occasions I have walked past homeless people and thought: ‘Oh for goodness sake, you are so young. Get up and go and get a job.’
But no one will employ a person who has no address who can’t prove who they are. It’s a vicious circle.However, those around him adored Alex. They loved his music and clubbed together to buy him a new string for his guitar so he could play for them that night. I promised Gumbo my sleeping bag when I was done with it.
Later, after a sandwich and drink at another church, near Soho Square, I headed for a sunny bench near the river. One of the lads there told me of food handouts at Lincoln’s Inn Fields at 7pm. It took an hour to walk there. For the first time, I sensed hostility in the air – animosity between British homeless people and immigrants living rough.
As I sat on my bin liner waiting for the food drop, more and more men wearing hoodies began to appear. The atmosphere was sinister and threatening. Then the van arrived offering sandwiches from Pret A Manger that had not been sold that day.
Despite the tension, I found it amusing that the volunteers – and these people are angels – read out the contents of the sandwiches as they distributed them. I had crayfish: there was not much of a queue for them! The free food defused the unpleasant atmosphere.
That night I went back to Bond Street, grabbing discarded cardboard from shops for bedding on my way. I was horrified to find another woman sleeping in my doorway so I had to move two doors down to Dolce & Gabbana. Oh, the irony!
Day Three: A rude awakening at 5am, as the cleaners arrived to wash the windows and my step. I opened my eyes to the sight of beautiful clothes and high-heeled shoes but all I wanted was food, water, shelter and company. I decided to return to St Martin-in-the-Fields.
I waited for the public toilet near Trafalgar Square to be opened and once inside, I took off some of my clothes and washed under my arms. In the mirror, I could see the toll that living rough was taking on me. I was unrecognisable. My eyes were puffy, my hair frizzy and I had lost weight. I am a size eight, and I was becoming skin and bone.
I saw Gumbo at the church and mentioned that I hated not being able to clean my teeth. He disappeared and came back minutes later with a wrapped toothbrush from a nearby hostel. I was so grateful, particularly when I learned this act of generosity meant he could not sleep there for a couple of nights.
Another kind man gave me a booklet listing all the food handout locations in London. It was more valuable than any Michelin guide. I went to Waterloo, where there was a church in which the homeless could get food after attending a service. Sausage and beans were served to us and I met several ex-soldiers, including one who had been in the SAS.
I thought of going to Portobello next – a long way on foot – but as I set out I felt faint. I was dehydrated as I had burned up so much of my reserves just keeping warm. I was shattered and tired. Slowly, I made it to the Strand in time to make the food drop from a van provided by a charity called the Simon Community.
When I got there, an old battleaxe of a woman demanded: 'What are you doing here?’ I said I just wanted a cup of tea but she said I was unwelcome. She had spotted Fiona, my camerawoman, and clearly wanted to provoke a fight. I was still trying to get some tea when two Polish guys came at me from nowhere. Fiona and I were both protected – from a distance – by a security guard, Stuart Cleverley.
Within moments he was by my side, grabbed me by the arm and whisked me away from my argument. Only when we were 30 yards clear did he tell me that one of the men had pulled out a knife and was inches away from stabbing me in the back.
I was scared witless. I had risked leaving my children without a mother for the sake of a TV documentary. I thought about baling out but when I regained my composure, I reasoned this had been an isolated incident and decided to honour the commitment I had made.
Day Four: I was paired off for the next three days with a guy called Drax who had been living on the streets for years. He was a bearded street artist working near the London Eye, who spent what money he got from punters on cheap booze. I had a really bad cold, running nose and temperature.
From a glance at myself in a shop window I looked 110 years old, with sunken cheeks and grey, lined skin. Drax took me to sleep under a church on a roundabout at Waterloo next to a cemetery and a crypt. It was sordid.
He laid out his damp, disgusting canvas for us to sleep on, side by side in sleeping bags. There were other homeless people there and one of them, a heroin addict, injected himself, then was sick into a flower pot. The noise all around us was unbelievable: trains were clattering, sirens wailing; it was complete bedlam. But funnily enough, I never slept better. I got about five hours that night because I was so exhausted and run-down.
Day Five: Somehow, Drax got me tea and toast with scrambled eggs for breakfast. Fabulous! Later I went to the Strand for free tea and then something to eat at a church near Charing Cross Station. Drax and I had to decide where to sleep as I wasn’t going back to the previous night’s dump. Behind the Royal Festival Hall I found some enormous pieces of cardboard. We built a camp in a tunnel near the BFI cinema on the South Bank and I went to wash in the toilet inside. In the night I had to get up and go for a pee in a nearby garden.
Drax was drunk. He snored disgustingly loudly and made me retch when he got up in the middle of the night and urinated on the outside of our cardboard. I didn’t have enough food in me to actually be sick.
Day Six: Two community welfare officers popped their heads over our shelter early and told us they could get us into a hostel that night, but accused us of not wanting help. Drax drunkenly said they were talking rubbish, but I wanted to see how we might escape all this. Then his mates turned up and they all began drinking. It was not yet 6am.
One of his friends was gorgeous, a man called James Brodie from Scotland. He looked like a tramp, with sores on his face and fingers, yet he spoke five languages, had a degree and once ran a hotel. His Spanish wife had kicked him out and he couldn’t get off the booze.
Drax was driving me nuts so I was more than happy for James to come along with us. I tried to get them both to the police station, where the community officers had told us to report. We were three hours late. I was now dragging these two drunks along with me – and realising why they never got anywhere: they either forget what they are doing, or it’s all too complicated.
After another hour, I had got them to a nearby internet cafe. Drax fell asleep on the keyboard and James was too embarrassed at what had become of him ever to contact his family. ‘I am slowly dying with no hope,’ he said at one point. He begged for money to make a phone call and I was asked to beg as well. But I felt that too degrading. I thought if you crossed that line you’d have no self-worth at all. Anyway, I was surviving without money.
Later that day the participants in the documentary met up with John Bird. In an explosive exchange, he accused me of being an upper-class do-gooder ‘trying to be Florence Nightingale’ and called me the vilest swear word imaginable. I accused him of being rude, patronising and of judging me by my accent, something I had not done to anyone on the streets.
I treated everyone as I found them and tried to understand how they had ended up sleeping rough. Did John think it better I should sit on a street corner getting drunk rather than try to motivate them to change their circumstances with some help?
Eventually, tempers calmed and John apologised.
Back out on the street, James slept with Drax and me in our cardboard shelter. I felt sad when I said goodbye to James. We really got on well.
Days Seven, Eight and Nine: I lived in a hostel – with a bed and a shower room – where young people living rough are given a year to re-organise their lives. I was impressed with the way the young people, abandoned for all manner of reasons, had been given a second chance.
Day Ten: I was driven home still looking like a tramp. Mel had champagne on ice and the children had bought me some Chanel powder. I cried. Of course, it was wonderful
to see them. But I didn’t feel in the mood to celebrate.
Since returning home, it’s hard not to be disturbed by what I saw. I never did find Gumbo to give him my sleeping bag, as I had promised, and that eats at me. I’ve also had cause to reflect on life’s insecurities after Mel was made redundant from his job as an investment banker in the City.
But I feel humbled and privileged to have been part of the programme’s mission to make us all think about the homeless. In a world growing ever more materialistic, these are people who have nothing, except each other.