I’ve been fundraising for the Big Issue Foundation for the last month now, (there’s still time to donate here if you want to) and it culminated last night in ‘The Big Sleep Out’, where over 150 people fundraising for various homeless charities spent the night sleeping rough outside Pip n’ Jay Church in Bristol. I was a bit nervous heading out, as I didn’t know anybody else there, but the organisers were extremely friendly and quickly rounded up a group of us who had all come alone so we could have a chat and get to know each other. From what I saw, I was one of the younger ones, certainly amongst those who’d come alone. I’d initially expected a lot of people would be like myself: guilty, well-to-do middle class people who’d never really known an ounce of hardship. But from what I garnered from the admittedly small number of people I met, they were predominantly from lower income backgrounds, and all seemed to do incredibly admirable, worthy things, from teaching unruly science classes in a local comprehensive to working as a nurse in a mental health ward. The man I ended up sleeping next to, Carl, was a former heroin and amphetamine addict who had actually been homeless and a Big Issue vender ten years ago in London, but was now happily married with a daughter, two pets, his own business, and a garden. He showed me a good place to sleep which would be well shielded from the wind.
*EDIT: Read Carl’s Story Here*
The sleep out itself wasn’t that bad. I had a very warm sleeping bag and lots of clothes, and am by now very used to roughing it. I suppose I have technically slept on the street before, while volunteering last year, but never in such cold weather. I managed quick 20-minute spells of sleep before I’d start getting sore and switching positions. At around 3am, the temperature seemed to noticeably drop, but although my toes felt rather cold, I found a comfortable position and slept for three hours.
But it wasn’t really a homeless experience. Here, there were 150 of us, all scattered around the church. I trusted the people around me. I felt safe. Safe enough that I didn’t stuff my muddy boots down the bottom of my sleeping bag so they wouldn’t get stolen. Safe enough that I didn’t sleep with a knife in my hand. Carl told me that if your sleeping bag got muddy or dirty, you just dealt with it. If it became so wet that it wouldn’t dry out, you’d walk around the city to homeless charities and hope they’d give you a dry one. And they certainly were unlikely to give you one that was comfort rated to -10 degrees, like mine. We also were greeted with hot tea, a banana, a bottle of juice and a cereal bar in the church when we woke up this morning. That would be an incredible luxury in the real world for a homeless person. Besides, I could go back to my room with a bed, and central heating and a hot shower. For a homeless person, it would just be the cold dawn. Beds, central heating and showers stretch indeterminably into the distance, little more than fantasies for many.
I shouldered my pack after saying goodbye to the others, and headed back up the hill towards my halls. Bristol at 6am on a Saturday is, like all cities, deserted. The only signs of life, unfortunately also like all cities, are the homeless, always among the last to finally drift to sleep for a few hours, and among the first to awake. As I approached College Green, I noticed two homeless people walking up the hill ahead of me, both carrying shopping bags. One of the two, a girl, came over and, catching sight of my wooly hat, muddy pack, and rollmat, asked me if I was also homeless. I told her I wasn’t, and explained about the charity sleep out. She was glad I wasn’t homeless; she didn’t want to have looked desperate enough to ask another homeless person for help. It turned out she was only 17, and had been sleeping rough for the last 6 months. She’d started a new job, but had been suspended for this week and forced to return to begging. I asked her how come she’d been suspended, and somehow seemed to realise the answer before it came. She’d been simply too tired to work, and kept falling asleep during shifts. Of course she had. It all made complete sense. I imagined that life, in which one would work long hours for insufficient pay, come out of work late, wander through the dark streets and then search in vain for more than a few hours’ sleep, as I just had. But she had to sleep with less clothes, perhaps without even a sleeping bag, every single night, through wind, rain and everything else. She’d had no smiles or free breakfast that morning; she might not have had either in years.
As a 17 year old girl.
I gave her all the change I had on me, wished her luck, and carried on walking. I wanted to cry.
The number of people sleeping rough in Britain has skyrocketed over the past few years, and council spending cuts reducing funding to services preventing homelessness is not helping. If not to me, please donate to homeless charities as their work becomes ever more critical. And at some point in your life, participate in a sleep out. It’s certainly not a realistic homeless experience, and I cannot stress that enough. But it does help you understand a little bit more about what it might be like to live and sleep like that with no end in sight.
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