This year I was, once again, asked to take part in the Sleep Out by the wonderful people at Cathedral Archer Project, after last year’s attitude changing experience I couldn’t refuse.
I asked for volunteers from among my work colleagues this year and, to my surprise, not one but four people stepped forward. As both the one who had done it before and the oldest I found myself de-facto leader of the little band, a role I both relished and feared.
Together we began the process of collecting sponsors and preparing us all for the event. As the day of the event got closer some of the team began to express some fears and reservations about the event and what may occur, I tried to allay some of those fears but also wanted them to know that this was not to be a night in a five star hotel.
This year, for me, was different to last of course. I knew something of what to expect both from the night outside and the people we would meet. You could say, some of the initial shock-value that left such an impression on me last time out. Not so from my colleagues of course.
As last year, the evening began with a talk from the project staff who related some of the projects aims and directions to us along with some stories of those the project had helped. Rather more statistics followed this year, which sadly only one of which I can remember with any accuracy (it takes approximately £1000 per day to keep the project going). There were others around average ages, life expectancy on the streets and average time spent on the streets, but I don’t want to quote them here as I can’t guarantee their accuracy (I’m happy to put these in at a later point if anyone confirms them to me).
Whilst some of these stories and statistics were shocking and informative, nothing quite prepares you for the stories told by those who are going, or have recently gone through it.
We then moved outside, picking our spots outside the cathedral front. I don’t know whether I noticed it more than last year, but we seemed to get more looks and stares from those using the tram stop or walking by than last year. Two of my colleagues in a move of bravery I’m not sure I would have done, simply walked over to the tram stop and began telling the people what we were doing and why. (I was VERY impressed).
I was nursing an ankle I had sprained a couple of week before and as such didn’t move too far this year, not taking the tour of spots that the homeless sleep in or the tour of the project itself. I thought as I’d done both last year I would really know it all. I was wrong and now wish I had gone on both.
As laid on my sleeping bag in the relatively mild evening I could sense something, a tension in the atmosphere, something I couldn’t quite out my finger on. I looked around me at the people gathered near me my fellow sleep-outs were either on the tour, sat chatting or like me, just sat. I noticed there were markedly more homeless people with us this year than last.
When my colleagues returned from the tour of the city centre, I was told of some of the things they have seen and stories they heard. They had been told of a murder between two homeless people. A story that had a profound effect on more than one of my colleagues, was this the source of the tension? I have no idea and probably never will. It certainly brought home to everyone that life on the streets can carry the highest peril of all.
Sharing the experience with people I knew made the night itself considerably easier to bear than last year, plus meeting someone from last year and being introduced to others made it much more of a sociable occasion. Something which I contemplated later, you only seem to see homeless people in ones, on their own, not in groups small or large. Why is this? I assume there is a reason.
Chatting, playing strange card games, talking about the issues we were there to raise awareness of passed the time, but even so, there were times of silent contemplation and boredom.
The boredom is bad, really bad. As you lay in the artificial orange light on the hard ground, failing to sleep, you mind runs and races. Every shout from the street, every passer by is carrying some imagined (or real) threat. Even though I had done it before and come through unscathed I still felt genuine fear at times, something is a way of daily life for the homeless.
About 3.00am people started to bed down and attempt sleep, I manged a few snatches myself. Around 4.00am the temperature took a very noticeable dive (something I was spared last year). In my borrowed sleeping bag (thanks Will!) I was warm, but any part of me that peeked out felt cold, uncomfortably cold and this was nowhere near freezing point. Another reminder of the harsh reality of life on the streets.
About 5.00am I got out of my bag and walked around a little, get the blood moving again in my very sore ankle and perhaps search out a warm drink. Everyone else seemed to be asleep, so I walked around the cathedral alone for a while, cold, miserable, in pain and alone. From both Sleep Outs, this was the most I felt the reality of being homeless. No hot drink, no warm places to go, nothing to stop the pain, no one to talk to, nothing to do. I was in the middle of one of the foremost cities of the UK and utterly alone both physically and metaphorically. Of course, a swift kick to one of my colleagues was have given me someone to talk to (or be sworn at by) and I was only a matter of few hours from my own bed, to be homeless means nothing to look forward to but more of the same tomorrow and the next night and the next ……..
I clambered back in my bag, wearily and clumsily and laid there, shivering and feeling very sorry for myself and laid awake, waiting for the breakfast call. Mercifully this was less than an hour and we were roused and gathered our things together and moved thankfully into the project for breakfast (bacon and hot tea always tastes good, but so much more so this morning!).
Certificates presented (and my name apparently changed to Daniel Beresford!) and some reminders that our befuddled and bedraggled state was the norm for far too many people and whilst we were staggering off to a warm house and comfy bed, they would start another day, that may include an incomprehensible government claim form, talking to a government employee about their claims and trying hard not to lose their temper!
As I look back at two Sleep Outs, it’s good to see the progress. From one colleague (Mollie) starting off (and sadly unable to be there) in the first instance, to me stepping out on my own last year, to leading a team of five (my sincere and profound thanks to the amazing Sean Hawkins, the wonderful Rich Chadwick, the incomparable Jon Pritchard and the simply awesome Elizabeth Spence) into it this year. From wondering if I’d scrape £100 in the first year in sponsorship to raising over £1200 this year. I feel proud. Proud to help in such a small way, proud to have stepped out, proud to be associated with such a worthy project. But most of all I’m proud of my work mates for coming with me, for developing their own stories and desires to make the world a tiny bit better.
I have already had two more people ask about being involved next year. I will be there and you’re welcome to join us.