- The next time a beggar approaches you on the street look
carefully into their eyes. What will you see? It could genuinely be a homeless
person in desperate need. But there is a chance that the person extending
his tin cup will be managing a bank the following morning or running a
- A fad that has been in full swing in the United States
for a few years - the "street retreat" - is about to take root
in Britain. In this topsy-turvy world, stressed-out executives submit themselves
to the ultimate exercise in regaining their perspective on life. They play
at being a street bum for a few days and nights.
- Gaining in popularity in cities all across America, the
retreats are designed to cleanse the spirit, but not the body. Indeed,
participants, who must usually pay a modest fee to indulge, are instructed
to turn up dirty and, if possible, a bit smelly. If you are going to be
beggar for a long weekend, better that you actually look and smell like
- Offered by church groups and organisations such as the
Hudson River Peacemaker Centre in New York, these weekends are for those
among us already tired of the more obvious alternative, a trip to the spa.
This is the anti-pampering experience. Feel like a mud bath? That's fine,
but you will find it in the gutter. Need to lose some pounds? A health
farm can do that for you. But having no money to buy food is more efficient.
- The Peacemaker Centre, which follows the tenets of Zen,
has been organising the retreats on the streets of New York for a decade
and has already had more than 300 takers. Usually, they are arranged in
small groups of say about 10 people, each paying $150 in advance. And their
hobo-holidays last from three to five days.
- "You have one piece of ID, no money and you are
living on the streets," Francisco Lugovina, a Zen teacher at the centre,
says. "You do not know where you are going to get your next meal.
You rely on asking people on the streets where the free lunches and the
shelter can be found and you find they are very generous."
- Another veteran of the Centre is Senso Grover Genro Gauntt,
who has led retreats all over the city and elsewhere in North America,
most recently in Montreal in March. But on the weekend of 24 to 26 June,
he will guide his first "street retreat" in London. The centre
is accepting applications now. The fee will be £150 and no more than
18 people will be allowed to join in.
- "We will be living on the streets of London, experiencing
the miracles of life that arise when we no longer attach to our comforts
and patterns and our stuff," Mr Gauntt says on the centre's website.
"Unpredictable and free, this is an opportunity to retreat in a real
sense, within and without - to retreat to what is right here, right now
- in challenging conditions."
- The group will split up during the day into smaller packs
to beg for money and forage for food. Everyone will reunite at night to
sleep together. "A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown,"
Mr Gauntt adds. "As such, no one knows what will happen. We can't.
It's an exercise in bearing witness to the joy and pain of the universe.
A glimpse of living on the edge of creation. A powerful one."
- There are several rules before turning up to start your
"down-on-your-luck" weekend. They are meant to ensure your comfort-deprivation
is as complete as possible. Thus, here are just a few of the regulations
commonly posted by street-retreat organisers, including the Peacemaker
- * Do not shave, or wash your hair for five days before
the retreat. This will also start your street experience before you leave
- * Wear old clothes, as many layers as you feel appropriate
for the time of year, and do not bring any change of clothes for the retreat;
- * Wear good, but not new, walking shoes;
- * Do not bring any money, illegal drugs, alcohol, weapons,
or mobile phones;
- * Do not wear any jewellery, including earrings and watches;
- * Besides the clothes you are wearing, bring only an
empty bag (shopping, plastic) for collecting food from shelters, etc. You
should not bring any books.
- In theory, any of us can submit ourselves to a few days
of street life without having actually to pay someone to show us how. Just
walk out your door on a Friday evening and leave all your credit card behind.
But Mr Lugovina says it is important to have the support of an organised
- "What you are paying for is the fact that we have
been doing this for 10 years. There are guidelines. There is also a spiritual
commitment to what we do. And a safety factor because the streets are dangerous.
You could do it by yourself and you might experience even more but this
is a quasi-structured environment."
- Several of those who have taken this advice and joined
the retreats happily attest to their value. Charley Cropley, 57, a naturopathic
doctor in Boulder, Colorado, was on a "street retreat" in downtown
Denver in the last week in March. It was the generosity of strangers that
he found most rewarding.
- "I approached four women - normally I just asked
men - and told them, 'I'll be sleeping on the street tonight and I'd like
something to eat'," Mr Cropley said soon afterwards. "And they
said, 'OK.' And one gave me $1. And one gave me $10. After that, I was
just shaking with gratitude.
- "It's hard for me to tell you how grateful I felt
to those people. You think people despise you, yet so many people are not
that way. The people that give you food at the shelters; what would you
do without them? You would die without people's kindness. And there's nothing
in it for them. There's no explanation for it. It's just kindness."
- © 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/story.jsp?story=517922