The SleepOuts are major events for Doorway, for raising awareness of homelessness and of the Doorway organisation, but they are also a major part of our income stream – we are after all a small, independent local charity, with no central or council funding. SleepOuts are sometimes criticised for doing more for the conscience of the participants than about ending homelessness. We stand by ours. As Doorway’s then-CEO Lisa Lewis said in ‘The Pavement’ magazine in 2010 “Sleep-outs are a very effective means of gaining both media and public attention to highlight the fact that homelessness exists at all in rural areas. We can raise awareness and then go on to educate the public in the issues surrounding homelessness on all levels. We use rough sleeping as a starting point.”
As Jo Kitching, Director of Doorway since last year said in her speech at the start of this year’s event, things are different in our rural area: “……. The thing about rural homelessness is that you can’t always see it. People end up sleeping in their vans, their cars, and fields and woodlands, so it’s not always apparent. … Homelessness isn’t only about sleeping rough, it’s also about people who just don’t have their own front doors, sleeping on sofas, sharing bedrooms, sleeping on landings or sitting room floors . .. ”
“We need also to change attitudes sometimes. It’s quite easy to dismiss someone who finds themselves in difficulties, on the streets, or not able to keep their own tenancy, but it can happen really easily, it could happen to anybody in this room. It can happen for all sorts of reasons, it could be loss of job, addiction to gambling or drugs or alcohol, it can be breakdown of relationships or it can be because of mental health problems. It could also be completely from no fault at all, being evicted from a private tenancy for no good reason.”
“So Doorway is here to pick up the pieces and to get people back on the right path, and to show non-judgmental support. We provide great food, hot showers, laundry, a football project and loads of other things, as well as signposting and referrals. We do it without preaching and without judgment.”
This year saw a record 49 ‘sleepers’ , a new record (previously held by the 42 in 2008) and at the time of posting the total raised is well above the £19,000 mark. A special mention here to the 20-strong team (yes, TWENTY) from GreenSquare , who have raised more than £6000 of that; and to extraordinary primary schoolboy Alfie, who raised £1500 through the Sleep Out and by baking cakes. With Hannah and Sophie from Hardenhuish School raising £350 as well, we can see that the younger generations are capable of huge amounts of caring and practical action.
The event started with short speeches by Chippenham Town Mayor Desna Allen and by Doorway’s Director, Jo Kitching. There was then, for those who wished to attend, a service in the church, Our old friends Lingmara world music choir sang at the service. They sung more songs after the service while the sleepers ate and had hot drinks. Sadly, BBC Antiques Roadshow’s Marc Allum was unwell and therefore unable to read the traditional bedtime ghost story.
Then it was time for the ‘sleepers’ to settle down in their combinations of cardboard boxes, sleeping bags, tarpaulins and bits of plastic, with help for those that needed it from our military volunteers. There were no ‘alarums or excursions’, and the weather was fairly kind, being fairly mild for January and mostly being a fine mizzle. However, at 05:00, the skies opened, and there was a mass arising, with most sleepers woken rudely and rushing for cover, in scenes somewhat reminiscent of a zombie film. Sadly I didn’t manage to capture any of that on camera as I was rushing for cover myself!
Undoubtedly, the event was a great success again. Some words and images from the night:
“What Jo has tried to organise is a very good thing, trying to create the awareness so that people see these people, they can try to help one way or another. To create awareness that there will be circumstances, reasons why somebody is sleeping rough, and they are loved and they are not alone in this world. People should show love to these people – it could happen to any of us”
“It was in a good cause, and it was a pleasure to do it, and you’re surrounded by workmates, colleagues, friends. It’s been really interesting, and the weather wasn’t bad. I think it does give you the insight into what it’s like to sleep outside, and though of course we can all go back to our houses this morning, it does show you it’s not a great experience. [What was the worst experience?] Not getting enough sleep. And being cold, and you can’t get comfortable, no matter what. And when you start getting cold, you can’t get warm, no matter what.”
“I knew from living in London that homelessness is a massive issue but it really brought home to me how it’s affecting other parts of the country. I think it’s really important that we raise awareness of these people as quite a lot of the time they have a stereotype and they are all painted in a light that is negative. I think it’s really unfair and I think it’s really important that we support them, help them get a better way of life, and support them getting a home and a safe space.” [Some people think sleepouts are middle class ways of virtue-signalling. What do you say to that?] “Each to their own if they want to think that, but my smug middle class night outside means I’m still getting into their brains somehow. I think it’s doing your bit, it’s raising awareness. I think the type of people who say that, they’re not going to be the people that help in the long run, so I’d ignore all their comments and think it’s important we do our bit.”
“I’ve been close to being homeless. It took three missed payments on my rent and I was issued with a notice. It’s very easy to end up there. It’s a scary thing. So something like this is a godsend for people who are out there.”
“Once I got to sleep, I slept better than I thought I was going to. But what it’s really brought home to me is if the weather’s bad. It’s just the rain, the noise, the worry about your stuff. And if you haven’t got a tarpaulin, and rain soaks into your cardboard box, that banishes all thought of sleep. To think that maybe all your possessions are going to be unusable or uncomfortable that must be pretty hard to bear. We can all go home and have showers and dry our stuff out, but if you’ve just got to drag all your wet stuff with you all day, it must just be terrible. It’s really brought it home to me.”
“It went very well. But then I found myself lying there thinking “I’m swimming in water here!” There’s no point staying out getting soaked to the skin, is there?”
“Apart from when the bells kept going off throughout the night, Pete loved it, but he actually thought we hadn’t succeeded, because we came in here and it’s not six o’clock.”[Oh no, as far as anyone is concerned, that sleep out finished when the rain came, so as far as we’re concerned, you’ve done it. If you were really rough sleeping, you’d have got out of there as soon as the rain came, you just wouldn’t have had a nice warm place to go into] “So you should be really proud of yourself.” [Pete]: “Every bit goes towards their situation.”
“I got involved because of Alfie. He’s been wanting to do things for the homeless for a long time, and he’s raised so much money – over £1500. He and his mum mentioned it so I said ”oh, I’ll do that.” [So in the morning you can blame him] “Yes, we’re all blaming Alfie!”
[Alfie] “I want to make money for Doorway so they can help homeless people. They give homeless people food, activities and shelter.” [Mum, Jo] “Last weekend, when I was getting a bit stressed about how cold it was, Alfie said “well think of the people who are out there this weekend, and it isn’t their choice”. So he started making me feel a little bit guilty. Alfie had his target, and at Christmas he was almost double that target, so then we increased it again.”
[In the morning] [Alfie] “It was good. I slept six hours. I didn’t like it when it was raining.”
[Jo] “I’m feeling very emotional. I just feel so lucky we can come in here. You can come in here and have a cup of tea, and it’s done, isn’t it, now? And that got me this morning, it really did. Because it’s been fine, but then waking up to that rain this morning, and then you just think “these people are going to be so wet” – wet all day, can’t go anywhere, horrid.”
“It does make you appreciate how vulnerable it is being out on the streets. Because we were protected, there was a group of us, felt safe, didn’t have any concerns, but thought “crikey, if you were on your own, where would you sleep?”. And we’ve all got a nice warm hall to come into if we need to. It was a really humbling experience, actually. I wouldn’t want to do it every night”
Two final interviews. One with our Director, Jo Kitching, and then the words of one of Doorway’s current guests:
[What are your aims for the Sleepout?]
“To remind the local community that homelessness is an issue that can’t be ignored, and it’s one that we still need to talk about a bit more to make sure people really understand why people either become homeless or at risk of losing their home, or find it difficult to find a suitable place to live. There are all sorts of complicated reasons for that, and the more that we do publicly talk about it, the better the understanding is, and that can only have a positive effect on the individuals involved, who once they hear directly from someone who is homeless, or has been, attitudes will change. They will see that ‘normal people’, it could happen to you, it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody. In a pretty quick time frame. You only need to have the image of it looming in the distance to think “wow, that’s scary”.”
[This has been the first SleepOut you have organised – what have been the biggest challenges?]
“I think probably just the fact that I haven’t done it before, so I didn’t have anything to refer to, I had no mind’s eye, no picture in my head. Obviously I was able to talk to people about what their experience had been, and looked at some photos, and obviously that helped. People were as generous with their time and advice as I expected they would be, because generally people around Doorway are generous with their time and support. So I’ve found it a lot easier than it could have been because of the people. And because Doorway has such a great reputation locally, people have been falling over themselves to help. My biggest fear was that it wouldn’t be successful financially.”
[You’ve already partly answered this, but what are your parameters by which you will define success?]
“The first definition of success for me is that nothing goes catastrophically wrong – and we haven’t got through the night yet! Beyond that, it’s generating interest in it, which I think we’ve done this year, good media coverage so far, should get a bit more next week, and hopefully that will only get better. When I was walking around today in the daylight, picking up dog poo in the churchyard, I met a couple of people, individuals, who asked me what I was doing, but they both knew about the Doorway Sleepout, though they didn’t know it was happening tonight. So that’s good that we’ve kept up the recognition that it’s a regular thing.”
“Another measure of success is the number of people we get and the number that was signed up was a great number, and we have a good number who have actually turned up on the night, so we’re going to exceed the previous record number we had in 2018.”
“Of course, the other measure of success is the amount of money raised. That is a big pressure, as I already mentioned, and we’ve already raised more than last time with just the money raised through Virgin Giving.”
“I’ve used Doorway for quite a few years. It’s given me a purpose, it’s given me somebody to talk to, it’s given me shelter when I’ve needed it, food and things like that, a hot shower, and it’s really turned my life around. Two years ago, I was here doing this after living in a van. With help from Doorway, I’ve managed to turn my life around. I’ve got somewhere to live now, I’m looking at getting a more permanent place with the Council. I can’t say how grateful I am to Doorway. To put it into words, it’s been absolutely amazing, and you are still carrying on doing the amazing work that you do. It’s also great that you’re not turning anybody away, and that each time somebody walks though the door, you’re actually seeing a human being.. You know everybody by name, you make everybody feel welcome, and it comes across in what you say to people. To me, some of the most important words are ‘good morning’ and things like that. When you’re on the streets, sometimes you can go days without even speaking to somebody. It takes two seconds when you walk past to say ”hello mate, how are you?”, and that can make a difference in a person’s life. Without things like Doorway, where is somebody going to get that? [You can become invisible] and sometimes you don’t want to be seen, but if somebody walking past just acknowledges that you’re there, that can make a big difference.”
“When I first came to Chippenham, I didn’t know about things like Doorway. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a doorway and somebody said “are you coming for breakfast?”and I thought “wow!”. And that’s how I got introduced to Doorway, was by someone who was in my situation. It was such a thing feeling “somebody actually cares”. I felt like a human being again. And to look on everybody as human beings, what’s happening tonight is absolutely amazing. There are so many people from different backgrounds here. And they’ve probably all got a story, a downfall or whatever. You have got some people who will walk past and say “that will never be me”, and then you’ve got another group of people who will go “that could be me” or “I know someone in that situation” and they will take a bit of time with you.”
“When it comes to begging and things like that, I have so many people say to me about giving money. The thing that I say is if you’ve got £5, you could give the £5 to one person, but with that £5 you could buy a loaf of bread, you can buy some cheese, you could make up a whole load of sandwiches, and you can give that out to 10 people. To me it’s not so much about the sandwich, it’s that you took your time, you took the time to say hello, see how they’re doing and everything else.”
“Whatever town, village, city, there are homeless people there. There are so many everywhere – everywhere we’ve got it. And you can say to that person in Chippenham, do you know about Doorway? And you can say to go down there. To me it’s not about giving the person money. I wasn’t fussed about money when I was on the streets, but what I was fussed about was someone to talk to I’ve been thinking over these last few weeks, about the things I really missed, and it was the human contact. But the other thing I really missed was a tap. Being able to turn a tap on and have that running water come out. Roughly 4 years ago or so, I was living in vans, I was living on the streets, and not being able to have a glass of water. I didn’t miss TV or anything like that.”
Montage of more pictures, with Lingmara music, on YouTube:
Many thanks from us to (in no particular order):
St Andrew’s Church and Parish Priest Rod Key for their kind hosting.
St John Ambulance, as ever, present throughout the event, thankfully not needing to be deployed
The three soldiers (Cpl Johnstone, Cpl Persaud and Capt McIlwain) based at MoD Lyneham who helped with ‘bivvying’ and with overnight ‘sentry’ duties.
Mayor Desna Allen for her support and her words at the service (and for making Doorway her Mayoral Year Charity).
Café India and Cousin Norman’s for food
Chippenham Street Pastors for passing by to check on us during the night, as ever.
And of course all sleepers, volunteers, publicisers, financial contributors, and general supporters of the event.
Hope to see many of you again in 2022. Unless the best thing of all were to happen, and there were to be no more homelessness. Well, we can dream. Which is more than the rough sleepers can usually do much of. The SleepOut was for one night. There will be, unless our dreams come true, over 700 nights of rough sleeping until our next SleepOut, come rain, wind, snow, whatever. And in a more hostile environment than our well-supported and safe SleepOut bubble.