On Saturday 7th December, millions of people took part in The World’s Big Sleep Out to raise money and awareness of homelessness issues across the globe. Here, supporter Harriet Sloane talks about her experience…
Last Saturday night I took part in the World’s Big Sleep Out along with millions around the world.
I knew it would be hard, but it was so much harder than that.
Even with numerous layers of clothing, a thick sleeping bag, and many other comforts I’d managed to borrow, I was terrified by the task ahead. I was scared about being bitterly cold and very lonely. I was scared about not being strong enough to make it through the whole night. I was scared I wouldn’t actually do anything to make a difference.
When I walked through the entrance gate to Trafalgar Square I was given an orange plastic survivor bag; that was a shock. I knew I’d have one but actually holding it in my hands was something else. Against the cold night this little package seemed so wholly inadequate.
It was a ‘mild’ December night, but the air was bitterly cold on my face; I tried my best to stick to the advice of not putting my head inside my sleeping bag or I’d end wake up with cold wet feet, though by the end of the night I’d given in – today’s immediate problem was much more real than tomorrow’s fall out. I became very aware, for the first time, how loud and bright the streets can be. The old lamps in the square which on previous occasions I admired for their beauty were now providing me and my fellow sleepers with our very own unwelcome spotlight.
At about 1am the rain started. It’s amazing how wet and cold light rain can be when you have nowhere to go to get out of it. The people who got to the Square earlier than me had taken all the good spots – the ones by the hard stone walls and the portaloos, which provided a little shelter from the buffeting wind and the rain. I never thought I’d be jealous of people sleeping by a portaloo or find myself longing for a doorway.
By about 4am my sleeping bag was sodden. I’d had to make trade-offs that the day before would have seemed ridiculous – I sacrificed wearing my scarf to have something dry to put my head on, but the rain seeped through. My hair and neck were wet and icy cold. The cardboard boxes underneath the sleeping bags had turned to pulp, and it took every ounce of grit I had to stay on that paving slab.
And still it rained.
It took 3 days in a warm home for my sleeping bag to dry. I don’t know how I would have been able to get back into it that night. It must be hell.
My night was one huge swings of emotions; bliss when I managed to position my umbrella so it provided me with shelter and complete, irrational despair when it disappeared – the one thing that had made me feel safe, shielded me from the weather and had created the illusion of my own little space was gone. There was also the elation I felt when people messaged me support throughout the night, and overwhelming hopelessness when I realised the only things that kept me going where the things homeless people don’t have – the knowledge I’d be home soon, the support I’d had from my friends and family, and the fact I was doing this for a reason.
That night gave me a tiny insight into the brutality of homelessness. A home is more than just shelter from the elements, it’s privacy, safety and stability. I felt exposed, vulnerable and completely untethered, and we were surrounded by security and fences. I physically ached and I was surprised how quickly I’d gone from looking quite fresh at the beginning of the night to haggard and exhausted at the end. And I never would have thought a £5 umbrella and a plastic bag would be so critical to me.
Last year 748 people died in England and Wales whilst homeless, but truthfully I don’t know how anyone survives. They must be the most resilient, determined people in all of our society. We must do better and approach this together to tackle the real root causes of the issue.