Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Sleep out

After my recent adventure on the “Sleep out” for the Cathedral Archer Project in Sheffield, I feel compelled to put in writing my experiences and thoughts.

I would like to point out this is my recollection of the night and I have tried to do it chronologically but sleep deprivation and old age may mean some things are in the wrong order or missed altogether.

If you’re not familiar with the work of the project you might want to have a look at the web site: www.archerproject.org.uk. In short they are a charity that works with the homeless in Sheffield.

My involvement began after an email went round at Highlander asking for volunteers to take part in a “Sleep Out” for the project, with only a cursory glance at the details I volunteered, after all it’s not like they were asking me to run a marathon or anything difficult, just sleeping, I can do sleeping!

Anyway fast forward to the day itself. Nerves kicked in around mid-afternoon and I really started to wonder what on earth I was doing, especially I was getting no small amount of stick from my work colleagues (but more of them later)!

I arrived at the project in plenty of time, dropped my stuff and went to getting something to eat (and if I’m honest a little Dutch courage). So with a full stomach and my resolve artificially fortified I went back to the project.

We assembled (slowly) in room in the project. I was starting to feel a little out of things already as it was clear many others had come either with one other or in a group and I was alone. I had some brief introductory chats with some of the people around me (a big thank you to them for taking pity on a lonely confused old man!).

We had an introduction to the project from the big boss himself and some tales of previous Sleep Out events, none of which helped settle my nerves as some were rather scary! We also had some introduction the problems that homeless people face, some of which were expected, but some of which I had no idea about. Whilst it obvious is going to get cold and hungry, what I didn't think about was the long hours of boredom, simply nothing to do but walk around. Walking around also helps in other areas, keeping warm, preventing getting abused, getting things stolen and trouble with the police. We were also given a tour of the project and its facilities, there is as you might imagine a kitchen for supplying hot food, free breakfasts etc. Somewhat less obviously (to me at least) was the laundry and the mini dentists surgery (complete with dentist’s chair!). All of which is designed to help the homeless people the basics we take for granted.

About 9.00 PM we were finally moved outside for us to choose suitable spots on which to spend the night. My first thought was under one of the trees in the cathedral grounds especially as rain was forecast for the next morning, until it was pointed out the birds inhabit the trees, with the obvious that may bring, and that at least one of the trees is a horse chestnut and there were a number of conkers which could drop at any point!
My spot chosen I laid out my mat and sleeping bag and….. well that it really, there isn’t much else to carry when your homeless so I sat on it. And sat on it. Chatting a little to the people around me but already gaining a sense of boredom. I watched the people and traffic go past, looked at the architecture of the buildings facing the cathedral grounds, but this soon got dull.

Some soup and a warm bread roll was most welcome, both for substance and something to do.
The cathedral itself was playing host to a Mozart recital and the project had provided some collecting buckets to ask the audience for donations when they left (about 10.00 PM). This have me my first real insight into being homeless. I dashed forward with my new found friends and started to ask for donations, the first half dozen or so people I asked simply walked past me like I didn’t exist, as if I just want there. I found this both confusing and annoying, I decided to change my tactic somewhat and rather than simply asking I decided to explain we were from local businesses and were raising both money and awareness of the project. This worked much better and some money began to flow. So my lesson was learnt, people would give to me to give to the homeless but wouldn't give to the homeless directly. I have no idea why, but when I was assumed to be one of the homeless I was ignored totally but being from a local business made me acceptable.

We were invited on a short tour of some of the sites the homeless in Sheffield sleep in. Our guide, a former inhabitant of the streets, showed us his site and some of the tricks he used to stay hidden and why he chose that spot (a nearby restaurant kitchen door and CCTV being high on the list), we were also showed a few other doorways and location but stopped soon as there were people bedding down already and I for one was keen this shouldn't be a freak show.

Back at my spot I sat down again for a short while before boredom hot again and I went grab cup of tea and use the cathedral “facilities” (another basic denied the homeless).

Boredom, something I so rarely feel, with so many ways to entertain and educate myself, so many ways of filling my time on any other night were not there. Then I imagine that every night and every day. Each day the same as the last, each filled with long hours of nothing, it’s easy to see why people on the streets become involved in drink and drugs (if not already) just to fill the time or make hours disappear.

I was fortunate the evening was extremely mild and had thus far only laid on or sat on my sleeping without the need to get in. I had been idly chatting to those around me and sitting in silence, too dark to do anything like read (I sneaked a book along), some of my fellows attempted to play cards but the lack of light proved too much for them. Around midnight I decided to settle and attempted sleep. It didn't work. Discomfort, noise, breeze, bright lights, people moving even some already snoring combined to make sleep difficult at best.
A homeless lady joined the group and took it upon herself to thank each and every member of the group for their efforts and raising money (even waking a few up to say thank you). She exclaimed how we were the reason she had clean clothes on (she had clearly used the laundry) and how she had saved several week to buy new jeans and told us ho lucky she was a she had rescued a nice new jacket from a skip. Yes, she considered herself lucky, sat with people with jobs and houses and gadgets, she considered herself lucky. She sat for a while and began telling a bit about herself. I won’t recount what I heard, some of it was personal and not for publication of the web by me. But suffice to say, I struggled to hold back the tears that she let flow.

It’s during this time that the real scary moment of the night happened. A couple of men appeared (I didn't notice them approach), our self-appointed guardian (the guide from earlier) had stopped the men from getting too close and a standoff and argument ensued. Things got quite aggressive for a short while I genuinely feared an outbreak of violence. Thoughts rushed through my head as to how I would react if it did, what would I do, what on earth could happen, police? Ambulance?? In the few minutes my head ran riot, while others around me seemed calm or even a little amused. The two men moved off and began singing John Lennon songs as it from a distance for a while (yes really!).

Excitement over and heart rate slowing, boredom soon overcame me again and I did manage about 45 mins sleep. Waking to the sight of man vomiting near the tram stop. Nice.

A spell of dozing, brief spells of sleep and long periods of waking staring at the world. I slept for a while to be woken approximately 4.00 AM with a wet face, fortunately it was rain. I laid for while without moving, then became aware of my neighbours moving, I glanced over and was told (twice) it was raining, “thanks” I thought, I noticed. The drizzle lasted only about half an hour and I simple couldn't be bothered to move as some others did.
I drifted off again and awoke sometime before 6.00, we were told that breakfast was to be served soon, the highlight of the event, bacon! As we stirred, deliveries were being made to some of the shops nearby in advance of the Saturday trading. A delivery driver from Boots was closest and saw fit to shout abuse at us, I’m not sure that many of my neighbours heard the words used but I did and some were not pleasant. Nice advert for Boots there.

Bleary eyed and aching I stumbled into the cathedral and sat quietly waiting for food. We were thanked, a lot, and asked a few questions. After so little (or in some cases no) sleep could we now go and fill in a benefits claim form? Operate a computer with little or no training? And then have no sleep the next night and the next and then operate as a human being on any level. No, I couldn't. I had major trouble working out how to operate the ticket machine at the train station let alone doing battle with an incomprehensible government bureaucracy.

I walked to the train station numb, mentally and physically! The city looked calm, empty, pretty even in a way but I had seen a brief glimpse of how dirty and nasty it is for some people in the world. How, through no fault of their own a series of bad decisions the bottom falls out of someone’s world and leaves them with nothing, not even the basics we take for granted, not in some far off war torn country, but here beneath my feet, in Sheffield.

Did I enjoy it? No, though some of it was enjoyable.
Was it worthwhile? Resoundingly Yes.
Would I do it again? To raise more money for the project yes.
Would I recommend you do it? Without a moment’s hesitation, yes.


  1. Great blog,
    I pray my sleep out on the steps of Manchester Cathedral goes well in November . Raising funds for the Booth Centre , which works to help the homeless.
    I volunteer overnight with the emergency homeless shelter , Narrowgate , which is a project of Manchester City Missions. I feel privileged to be able to do so.
    God Bless you doing this Daz.