On 4 March 2014, I witnessed a group of police officers forcibly move on some homeless people around Newland Avenue in Hull, the heart of the city's student population. Their only crime was being homeless, which I don't feel is a crime, and certainly doesn't justify the treatment they received. I felt helpless, and had to carry on home, angry.
After I witnessed this aggression towards these people, some of whom I've spoken to a number of times, I decided to see what life was like for someone living below the breadline, so in something of a rash move, I decided not to eat for an entire week, from 8pm that day to 8pm the following Tuesday, and record how I felt on a day-to-day basis.
What ensued was a week of joint pains, fatigue, a lack of focus, mood swings and other various side-effects. From day five onwards I was in a state of mind that can only be described as the feeling you get when you take a small amount of a psychedelic drug, combined with a sense of self-isolation stemming from the inordinate amount of food around me.
To highlight how starvation is a taboo subject, I didn't tell anyone I was doing this, apart from the editor of the student newspaper, where the original article was published, and a close friend who said he'd keep an eye on me throughout the week. As part of the test, I would carry on with my normal life as much as I could and see if anyone noticed and spoke to me about it.
During the week, no one said a word to me, but after I posted a Facebook status explaining what I'd done, I had an influx of texts, Facebook messages, Tweets and comments on the thread from people telling me that I looked thinner and didn't seem myself. My housemates, who also had no idea, also noticed that I was quieter and spent a lot more time asleep. A lot of people spoke to me afterwards asking if I had eaten and if I was alright now, and said they didn't say anything because they didn't want to be rude, which means we have a twofold problem here. Not only do people in poverty not talk about their predicament, their friends don't flag up their concerns unless it's blatantly obvious.
I had to take a trip to Sainsbury's twice during my week, once to get washing powder and again the following day to get milk. Although I wasn't tempted to buy food, I felt isolated in the sense that I knew I couldn't have any of it. I've never felt anything like it before; just seeing people carrying baskets of pizzas, bread, pasta sauce and whatever else like it was nothing, and me knowing I couldn't join in with this apparently normal act. It's urban isolation at its peak, that's the nearest metaphor I can think of.
This feeling also settled in when people offered me food. I wasn't going to take free food because, even though those in poverty and on the streets do occasionally have handouts, I didn't think it right for me to accept them. Every time someone offered me food, I politely declined, saying that I'd just eaten. Nearer the end of the week, I got a couple of discerning looks off of people who later said I looked thinner than usual, but no interventions.
I went out to Hull University's nightclub the night after I broke my fast, and the article's online response was matched by what I received in-person. Friends, strangers and bar staff all asked if I'd eaten, and some said that they'd donated to the homeless that day after reading my article. A friend also promised me that she'd buy a meal deal for a homeless person once a week now, as well as buy a Big Issue from every vendor she saw. "If I don't, I'll spend that money on alcohol or something. They'll spend it on food, so it's much more important that they have it."
After the article went up on the HullFire's website, an anonymous commenter noted how people congratulating my effort could be taken out of context and seen as glorifying "an unhealthy and dangerous way of promoting the cause." I must admit, I didn't think about this before undertaking the task, and it's only something that's come to my attention after this comment. I'd like to say just for the record that I am in no way promoting the act of self-starvation and that I didn't fully look at the damage it could've potentially caused me.
Nonetheless, I've been absolutely humbled by the response, and I'm glad that my endeavour touched a nerve with people.