Homeless for one night

homelessA couple of days ago, Saturday 26th October, we organized a “Big sleep out’ to raise money for the Folkestone Winter Shelter Charity.

The WS provide a warm safe place to sleep for the homeless people of Folkestone. They give them a hot meal, somewhere to shower and wash their clothes and try to get them back housed. Three years ago someone actually died on the streets of Folkestone as they tried to keep warm so it’s not exaggerating to say that the work they do is life saving.

Every single year the funding they receive gets smaller and smaller. That’s why we (Blueskypie) have been involved, helping to raise funds, for the last three years.

The BSO was staged at St Mary’s School Folkestone. We had over 50 people who paid £10 to register and then looked to get people to sponsor them to sleep out. There were no tents allowed, you had to make your home with the cardboard boxes and plastic we provided.

Everyone started to arrive at 6 pm and had a lot of fun and laughter trying to build their temporary shelter for the night. Within a couple of hours we had built a cardboard shantytown in the school’s grounds.

Our youngest person who slept out was Freya who was just 8 years old. Once her family had made their cardboard home, she settled down to happily decorate the front of the boxes with colorful pictures and taped on glow sticks. She went on to win first prize for the best built house for the night.

I oldest person to sleep out was Kitty, who was 85. She was just amazing and so determined she put me to shame!

We had four lovely musicians who turned up to provide the music, some poetry and story telling and we provided a hot supper for everyone too. This was a sanitized version of being homeless and pretty far from the real thing. We had security all night patrolling the grounds to make sure every one was safe.

To be honest I have been involved in fund raising for the homeless for a number of years and I have read huge amounts about it. I thought I had a pretty good handle on being homeless, when I spoke to people about it; I spoke as if I KNEW what it was like on live on the streets.

That was until I experienced this much-sanitized version being homeless for one night, that is.

This event has been in planning for eight months and I arrived at the school at 4pm to start setting up. I was running around for hours making sure every thing was in place, the musicians were catered for and organized etc.

It was at about 11 pm, as the weather looked decidedly bleak, it hit me for the first time that I needed to make a home for the night. By now, most people were settled down and asleep. The wind was blowing an absolute gale (it was the night before the storm that never happened). People’s cardboard houses kept getting blown across the playing field and they would have to jump up from their sleeping bags to retrieve them.

The temperature dropped and I noticed that the minutes started to homeless kidsgo passed like hours. It was uncomfortable and increasingly cold and time just dragged and dragged. I drifted off to sleep and woke with a start hoping it was 6am but it was only 11:55.

At 12:30am I took over from our security man and spent the rest of the night patrolling the grounds. People were constantly shifting about trying to get comfortable and feeling the cold rise up from the ground.

Just after 1 am it started to rain a little bit, on and off in short bursts. I would slowly walk around, pushed and pulled by the biting wind. I checked the gates, strolled round all the sleeping figures and looked at my watch again to find just five minutes had passed. The night stretched on and on.

It’s in these quiet moments when the reality of having to live like this hits home. Imagine if you had to do this every night? Imagine what it would be like to have to sleep rough for any length of time? How can they do it? Half a night in and I could feel my good humour ebbing away.

I know if your reading this it probably sounds melodramatic, but the thing that kept me going was that I knew, that in the morning I would be able to go home, have a hot shower, put on clean dry clothes and jump into my lovely comfy bed, I had just bought a new duvet and pillows and I couldn’t wait.

Then I thought, if I were actually homeless I wouldn’t have that thought to keep me going though. Homeless people don’t just have to endure for a few hours as a one off. This is their reality!

How do they cope with it? What do they think about to keep themselves going? What device do they use to get them through the night? Can you imagine some of the thoughts that would go through their heads, as they had to live through this spirit crushing experience night after night? Even in this shadow of a real homeless experience, suddenly I did have a small glimpse of what it must be like.

The night dragged on for what seemed like 12 hours and it was 3 am. Then, very suddenly, the light drizzle suddenly changed to torrential rain! The rain was bouncing off the ground and being blown by the driving wind. Within 5 minutes the ground had half an inch of water and the rain was coming down even more.

At first people pulled up their plastic sheets and waited for the rain to pass. The rain though bucketed down for the next three hours, without a break. By 3:30 the ground became a shallow lake and the cardboard boxes of our shantytown started to disintegrate. First everyone’s sleeping bags were wet and then all their clothes, shoes and socks. We were all soaked to the skin and still the rain fell.

We sheltered under a hard standing at the school but as the wind blew we shivered. We had to send Charlie from the WS to go and persuade Kitty, our oldest member, to come under the hard shelter, as we were worried about the amount of water around (she might drown!). She came kicking and screaming though as she wanted to stay out.

As we stood there shivering all we could think off was getting home, showered and into a warm bed. Spending this one night outside had become an endurance test.

If we were homeless though, soaked to the skin and freezing cold at 6 am in Folkestone on a Sunday morning, what could we have done to get warm? Where would we have gone? How would we have got dry? What would we have done all day with no money and no food? How could we contemplate sitting around in our soaked freezing clothes?

40% of homeless people have some form of mental issues, would this experience make those problems better or worse? 46% of homeless people have drug or alcohol issues, would this one night make you want those escapist crutches more or less?

We had just one night as a taste. None of us who stayed out, experienced the prejudice that homeless people receive every day. The cutting words, the abuse hurled at them or people walking past them pretending that they weren’t there. How would that make you feel if you had experienced sleeping out?

None of us had random violence dished out to us by drunken people as they passed. Most homeless people have to hide away at night for fear of being kicked unconscious by drunks on their way home. One young man in Canterbury had his sleeping bag set on fire ‘for a laugh’ as he slept earlier this year. Do you think if that happened to you, it would make you feel better or worse about the world?

As we trudged home, all these thoughts filled our heads. All after one, sanitized, experienced of being homeless for just one night.

Homelessness should not exist in the 21st century in such an affluent country as ours. The fact that it does condemns our society. We strive for more, more possessions, better cars and holidays, more more more.

It is said that millions of us are just two big arguments and a sacking away from being homeless. It is also frighteningly easy to fall through the cracks of the system and end up on the streets. If that happened to you, would you hope that there was someone there to help you? I do.

We could, you and I, make sure that there was no more homelessness in our town. We could get more involved in our community. If everyone who lived in Folkestone donated just £1, the winter shelter could open now and run through the whole winter. We could put pressure on our local councils by writing to them, on mass, to urge them to do more to support the homeless. . We could put pressure on local big businesses to make them support people like the Winter Shelter.

Start now by clicking on the link below to donate something, however small. Buy a homeless person a sandwich or a hot warming drink if you can. If you can’t do any of those things, just smile and say hello as you pass.

Those little things make all the difference in the world.


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