When I made the decision some few weeks ago to sleep outside, in a car park, for an entire night, with nothing more than a sleeping bag and one layer of thin cardboard to separate me from the cruel, concrete ground, most friends and family members thought I was crazy. “Chloe’s going to be homeless this week,” a close friend of mine teased, days before the Norwich Sleep Out. “Why are you even bothering?” And indeed, why did I?
It’s true, I had never done anything remotely like this before, unless you count camping in a field for a Duke of Edinburgh expedition, and neither had many others. So naturally I expected it to be cold, but no amount of hot chocolate quite prepares you for such an experience. Once myself and over 100 other “crazy” sleep-outers began winding down into our sleeping bags from around 11pm onwards on that Friday night, conditions were relentless. The harsh winds were unforgiving; the streetlights conveniently beaming down on where I was situated made it seem as though I was making a premature trip up to Heaven (and I’m assuming freezing toes and tips of noses are a sure sign of Heaven’s close embrace?). The snores from the man two sleeping bags down made me green with envy – just to top things all off. How is it even possible for someone to sleep six hours straight in such undesirable conditions anyway?
But this shouldn’t be seen as a petty old moan about sleeping outside for a night. Rather, we should be reminded that a distressing number of people have to do this every night, for months – sometimes years – at a time, without a choice. As participants, we knew that once 7am came around, we would all be making our way back to our homes and into our warm, comfortable, supportive beds, but can we truly say the same for those who are less fortunate?
The Benjamin Foundation, the charity which organised the Sleep Out on Friday 17 November, looked after us all amazingly with a constant supply of hot drinks and dinner, followed by breakfast the next morning, and even supplied us with entertainment from the talent of a young musician; spirits were certainly high despite the extremely low temperatures.
But for those sleeping on the streets for reasons such as unemployment, a breakdown of social networks or disownment, a luxury of this kind simply does not cross their path. And with the festive season creeping up on us, a roof over our heads is a much more appreciated gift than a Peaky Blinders boxset or another pair of socks, surely? Yes, the objective of the Sleep Out was primarily to raise awareness of youth homelessness as a growing issue in Norfolk and Suffolk, and elsewhere in the UK, but it does not claim to replicate the true conditions of homelessness, though I can certainly vouch for it creating empathy for those who have no other resort.
And that’s why I took part. Not because I particularly enjoy sleeping like a miserable slug in a sleeping bag in the cold night air, but because others don’t have any other choice. If more empathy was created and awareness raised, then I believe perceptions on homelessness would change immensely. It was announced by the Benjamin Foundation during that same weekend that we had collectively raised over £30,000, the Sleep Out being their biggest fundraising event of the year. The money raised will now go towards housing more 16-25 year olds, an age group the charity works with specially for up to two years at a time, as well as providing support to encourage self-support and independence. But this is a long process. Inevitably, views on tackling homelessness are varied, particularly with regards to long term, sustainable solutions. By identifying why homelessness still exists and taking collective action to address this, surely this is a step in the right direction?