On Thursday 7th November seven of us from work joined the Sleepout in Exchange Square, London, to raise funds for Centrepoint, the charity which helps young homeless people across the UK. They do so by not only providing shelter, but by teaching them a trade so that they can get off the streets for good.
We pitched up just after seven o’clock, and my colleagues headed straight for the BBQ tent/bar next to the ice rink. The four other men tucked into food, whilst my two female colleagues had a drink. I held out because I wanted a degree of authenticity to the experience. I told my colleagues that the RAF canteen’s food would be excellent, but they didn’t believe me. I have to say that 3 Squadron Mobile Catering changed their minds – the food was excellent.
Centrepoint had laid on entertainment – singers and some ice-skating. They were giving away cups of free warm sake. Presumably this was from a sponsor wanting to target the well-salaried participants, but they literally couldn’t give it away because so many people seemed to prefer to stay in the BBQ tent/bar or the posh outside wine bar overlooking Liverpool Street Station. Given the associations between alcohol problems and homelessness, as well as the fact that alcohol can contribute to exposure in cold weather, I thought it was questionable. When veteran soi disant entertainer Christopher Biggins took to the ice to tell a bedtime story, that signalled a definite end to the fun.
The Sleepout area was a pedestrian underpass between Exchange Square and Appold Street – ironically, under part of a bank where I’d given training sessions. The concrete surface was covered with cardboard, and we each had a giant Jiffy bag to sleep in. I’d been expecting thick corrugated cardboard, which I remember from childhood as being warm and comfortable, and have seen ‘real’ homeless people using. Ours was rather thin. The Jiffy bags were essentially the kind of industrial paper bags used for dry powdered goods. Mine was large enough for me to lie down in comfortably, with my head on the flap, and I’m 6’0”. I’m thankful for that paper bag because the wind did get up a bit, and it provided excellent protection. I only had a very thin sleeping bag, and wore just a hoodie and a padded jacket on top of that, as well as a Thinsulate hat. I was perfectly warm. I’d also brought earplugs and a sleep visor, as had most of our party. My colleagues had very thick sleeping bags – the four season variety, and one had the good sense to have brought an inflatable camping mattress. We were guarded by both Centrepoint and the security guards who normally patrol that area. (I’d explained earlier to my colleagues that the reason you don’t see rough sleepers in the City because it’s mostly private land, patrolled by security firms.)
It was the noise that got to me. I’m a very light sleeper, and I’ve worn earplugs for several years now in my relatively quiet London suburb. However, the noise of maintenance workers on the tracks at the station was quite loud, as was the traffic on Appold Street – taxis, delivery lorries, cleaning vehicles. Worse than that was the constant talking by other participants making their way to bed. In our area there were 200-300 people, with around 1,000 in total. Sure, the eleven o’clock bedtime was only an option, and there was a ‘wake’ area for people who preferred not to sleep (which seems a bit of a contradiction on Sleepout). Right up until 05.00 people were rolling in drunk in groups and talking loudly, apparently without any self-awareness or regard for the rest of us. I sat up at 03.00 and watched one drunk in an event T-shirt stagger his way between the sleepers. He then lost his balance and stood on a few before falling across two. His own space turned out to be the other side of where he’d been searching.
I got up at four o’clock – once you get the idea in your head that you need a pee, you can’t shake it, even if you don’t. There were still groups sitting drinking and eating takeaways. The organisers had asked people specifically not to bring alcohol. But, then, wasn’t I after a bit of authenticity? And don’t homeless people have to put up with drunken assholes? I took a short walk around to rescue my sore knees – how often do you get to see London at that time in the morning? I’m sorry to report that it’s not as interesting as the reality TV shows make it out to be. People hurrying to board the first Stansted Express of the day look no different to any other passengers.
I got to sleep sometime after 05.30 and then got up at 05.55. The RAF caterers were doling out a delicious cooked breakfast – a large bun filled with sausages, egg and bacon. I’d seen them preparing it on my earlier walk. Then it was onto the gloriously warm Tube system (standing-room only on the Central Line at 06.15, but only a few Eastern Europeans on the Northern Line going south.)
I was lucky enough to be able to get back home to a warm house by 07.00 and re-energise myself with a run a couple of hours later. And that was the main reason it wasn’t authentic: we all knew this was just one night. We would go back to our warm offices or homes. We could have warm showers and comfortable beds in quiet houses on Friday night. We wouldn’t be trodden on by drunks, moved on by security guards, or wonder where the next meal was coming from.
And when I heard the news bulletin on Radio 4 at 07.00 I realised that a million people or more in the Philippines had lost the roofs over their heads. Think about that. Millions of people without any shelter, sleeping rough under the stars, with no hope of a home for days or weeks. Think about that and realise how lucky you are when you complain about your domestic energy bill, which is amongst the lowest in the developed world. Wow – is that really the biggest thing on our political agenda right now?
See our total and/or donate here: http://www.justgiving.com/EvaluateSleepOut