Paige is 21 years old, with bright pink hair and an impish smile. Most nights, she pitches her blue tent in a graveyard in Brighton because she feels safer lying among the dead.
She gets her own space among the graves, it’s pitch black at night and she has some respite from the usual cavalcade of drunk men offering a tenner for sexual favours. Sometimes, her boyfriend JP shares her tent; other times he’s at a hostel without her. When she is on the street during the day, she moves in a pack, staying close to at least one other woman so she’s not mistaken for a prostitute and propositioned by some guy. When she has the energy, Paige visits her little girl, but even when they’re not together, her maternal instinct to protect her seems to weigh heavily on her. She speaks often about her deteriorating mental health.
We meet Paige on a new BBC3 documentary series called Love and Drugs on the Street, the first episode of which airs tonight. As the show opens, Paige is telling the camera what a “tramp’s wash” is: it’s her best attempt at hygiene, when she grabs some baby wipes and cleans herself in a toilet cubicle or inside her sleeping bag. This, and the constant craving for drugs and warmth, is the reality of sleeping rough. Paige is often cold, wet and frightened, alone but for the graves beside her and the other homeless people nearby in their tents. It is a grim life, one where she must always be alert, always be in survival mode.
These days, one in eight rough sleepers is a woman, and her life expectancy is 43 years. Rough sleeping has more than doubled in England since 2010, with the highest increase being on the streets of Brighton. More than half of those homeless in Brighton came from outside the city. Many of them alternate between sleeping rough in a sleeping bag, tent or doorway, and getting to spend time with their heads on pillows in hostels or council flats. Nothing is certain or permanent. Everything is just for the night.
In the first episode of this new series, we meet four women who all live in Brighton. There’s Paige, whose story I’m already hopelessly invested in. By the time we leave her and by the next episode, there may be some hope of a development in her story.
Then there’s Tanya, who is seven months pregnant at the time of filming – or as she says, 48 days away from getting her body back to herself. She shares a sleeping bag and survival tips with her partner, Mark, and they’ve been together about a year. She knows that their baby boy will be put into foster care after he’s seen by doctors – he’ll have to wean himself off whatever drugs or medication Tanya is taking.
We meet Suzie next, an older woman who says that if she could go back to prison tomorrow, she would. It was cosy there, she says, and she was guaranteed three meals a day, regular medication and a bed to call her own. For a short time, she takes a 21-year-old woman called Jo-Jo under her wing, trying to keep her calm and stop her from antagonising passers-by. Jo-Jo smokes spices and has lived her life in care, which she says has always made her feel homeless anyway.
The show is distressing without being voyeuristic. It is intense but extremely watchable. Each of these women seems to want to tell her story, if only to pass the time. It’s lonely on the streets of Brighton and even though there’s some sense of community among homeless people, each woman is very much fending for herself. Paige and Jo-Jo are just 21 years old and we don’t know a lot yet about exactly what life events led them to the streets but I suspect we will find out more as the series continues. We don’t know yet why Suzie went to jail but it is powerfully sad that she wishes she was back there because at least, for her, it was a sort of home. We may be around for the birth of Tanya’s baby boy and if so, it will be harrowing to see her have to give him up.
I, for one, will be tuning in next week to find out more about these courageous women. In the meantime, I expect to think a lot about Paige, in her tent; Tanya, in her sleeping bag; Suzie, in her hostel; and Jo-Jo, in her doorway.
Love and Drugs on the Street: Girls Sleeping Rough will be shown on BBC Three from Sunday 5th November.
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