March 26, 2013

Politics Society Sleepout 2013

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At the beginning of February I recieved an email from Charlie, the Politics Society's charity representative, telling me about their new links with Coventry Cyrenians, a charity supporting homeless men and women in Coventry. As soon as I heard that they were getting involved with Coventry Cyrenians I wanted to join in whatever was going on to try and help out this amazing charity who do so much to help people living on the streets. So, I contacted Charlie and offered my support with their fundraising event for this year, which turned out to be a sponsored sleepout - in February! Now, I'm no stranger to sleeping outside, I've been to many festivals and camping trips, and even did the Cyrenians sleepout back in...oooh, let me see...well, you don't need to know when it was but it was a pretty long time ago when I was at school, but a sleepout - in February?. Still, I decided that, as it was for a great local charity, a bit of cold wouldn't hurt us. For the next few weeks I put up posters about the event and pestered my PaIS colleagues with emails asking for sponsorship and counted down the days until our sleepout. It's fair to say that by the time the day came I was not really looking forward to it. In hindsight we were very lucky as the weather has got worse as February/March has gone on but it was very, very cold.

On the morning of Wednesday 27th February I came into work as usual, the day was mainly spent promoting the event to everyone who asked me about it and telling people about the great work that Cyrenians do. I got home from work and had a nice hot cup of tea and some dinner and at 7pm that evening I got my sleeping bag and bottle of water and walked the long walk up Spencer Road towards the main entrance of The Memorial Park in Coventry. Here I met Charlie and another 5 members of the Politics Society and we wandered into the park to meet up with Helen, a Cyrenians worker who had come down to have a chat with us about the event. Helen told us about the work they do at Cyrenians and kindly donated a few blankets to put on the ground to sleep on (this was a lifesaver as the ground was so cold and all we had were the clothes we stood in and our sleeping bags), then another 3 people from Cyrenians came to meet us as they were goiong to be spending the night sleeping rough with us so they too could empathise a little more with the people they worked with on a day to day basis. Helen took a few photos and went on her way, then our night of sleeping rough really began. We set up our sleeping bags next to the War Memorial, which maybe wasn't the best place as it was extremely windy and very exposed; the workers from Cyrenians told us that homeless people would be more likely to sleep where there was light and more shelter, but we stayed where we are and settled into our sleeping bags, on top of the donated blankets, on top of the cold, hard stone of the War Memorial.

Cyrenians Sleepout

The night started off ok and I was extremely happy when Cyrenians pulled out a hot flask of coffee and some Baileys , it certainly warmed me up but I regretted it later when the caffeine kicked in and it was even harder to sleep! I don't know how people sleep on the streets at night...I admit, even through all of my bravado, that I was a bit nervous about being so exposed out in the dark at night and it must be awful to have to do it on your own, without the protection of being in a group. We all got as comfy as we could and chatted away between ourselves until James Bevis arrived to tell us about his experiences of living on the streets. James is a Warwick student who spent 9 days over Christmas living on the streets of London, on his own, to raise money for homeless charities. He managed to raise about £27,000 so his experience was very inspiring. If you go on You Tube you should be able to find some of his video diaries from his time on the streets, they are definitely worth a watch. We all sat and chatted to James and asked how he coped. James told me the worse thing was the isolation and reactions of others to homeless people, one example being when someone threw a vodka bottle at him. Eventually everyone started to drift off to sleep; the War Memorial hummed with the sound of contented snorers and the wind whistled round the trees, the lights at the pavillion went off and everything was plunged into darkness...but I still couldn't sleep! As much as I tried to curl up into a ball and pull my sleeping bag hood over my face, I was still absolutely freezing and couldn't get one wink of sleep.

All in all it was a very difficult night, I took my gloves off at one point and forgot to put them back on for an hour or so - my hands were so cold and I struggled to warm them up again. I also took off my glasses for a while and when I went to put them back on again they had a layer of ice over the lense. Another low point was having to sneak off in the dark and find a tree to go to pee behind, this wasn't so bad when it was dark but as the sun rose in the morning it really made me think about the difficulties of being homeless - just not being able to do the things you take from granted when you have a flat or house; things like going to the loo, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, making a hot drink. Aside from the aforementioned toilet issues, the moment I saw the sun come up was a happy one and I can honestly say I've never been so pleased to get out of bed of a morning.

At about 7am the birds were singing, the sunshine shone on the dewy all looked beautiful, but, in all honesty, we all felt like crying. People started to wake up one by one and joggers and early morning dog walkers started to appear - this was the moment we all felt real isolation. I was amazed at how invisible we all were - 10 people in sleeping bags and noone could see us! People either jogged straight past, without so much of a flicker of recognition in their eyes, or they would give us looks of utter disgust.

When I was in the final year of my degree I interviewed 4 homeless men as part of one of my final degree projects back in 2011 and the one thing we all wholeheartedly agreed on is that there are lots of poeple in this country who are only 2-3 pay cheques away from being homeless. Imagine if you lost your job, couldn't pay bills or rent, couldn't afford food, had to borrow money that you couldn't pay back and then ended up on the slippery slope to homelessness - it is easier done than many people think! One woman in particular, on that cold morning in the park, I found very rude and wondered what she would do if she found herself out of work and in a situation she couldn't get herself out of? Her dog ran over to us and I said good morning to the lady and bent down to stroke the dog, she obviously didn't hear me as she ignored me completely and started shouting her dog over. The dog then ignored her and I, again, said good morning and, again, she ignored me and continued to call the dog. Eventually the dog went back to it's owner, and after saying "Good morning" three times I eventually got a grunt in return. I would have loved to have known what was going through her head when she saw us, it made me so sad to think that people have to put up with that kind of prejudice every day and have to deal with the isolation that comes from living on the streets.

The walk home that day was a quiet one; everyone was tired and slightly emotional but I knew we all felt the same and that the night sleeping rough had really given us a small insight into the struggles of having to sleep rough and not have a place to call home. The team from Cyrenians also said the same and I think that experience will stay with us forever. I think we all got so much out of this event and the fact that we managed to raise about £700 for Coventry Cyrenians was a huge bonus. Once I got home I started to warm up and my feet began to get some feeling back in them, I'd booked the day off work so was lucky that I could have a day of sleeping and relaxing and keeping warm, unlike those living on the streets who would have to do that all over again the next night. One thing that really got to me was the dampness, everything feels so damp, and to think of poeple having to do that night after night without having anywhere to get warm or dry off is the saddest thing. Coventry Cyrenians have an outreach team who try to help people in this situation and try to give them hope that there is an alternative to life on the streets. Please go to the Coventry Cyrenians webpages to find out more about this amazing charity and what they do as they make a huge difference to people's lives who otherwise have no hope.

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