On the night of Saturday January 27th, the latest (7th) biennial Sponsored Doorway SleepOut took place in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church, Chippenham, venue for the SleepOuts since 2012. This year 42 ‘sleepers’ braved the elements (as far as I can determine, a record for the event by a margin of 1 sleeper), and at the time of posting the total raised is a little above the £10,000 mark. A special mention here to the 6-strong team from GreenSquare , who have raised more than £1500 of that.
Undoubtedly, a great success.
As ever, the SleepOut was held with the aims not just of raising funds (though goodness knows that is very important to a small independent local charity like Doorway) but also to raise awareness of homelessness and rough sleeping. I talked in the blog piece of the 2012 SleepOut about the debate around the role of Sleepouts in fund and awareness-raising. As Doorway’s CEO Lisa Lewis said in 2010 in ‘The Pavement’ magazine, “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 she has also said on Doorway’s own website, the situation is different around North Wiltshire to that in the cities: “Homelessness is allowed to sleep on a sofa or the floor (‘sofa-surfing’), rather than remain on the streets. These are often an invisible problem in rural areas like North Wiltshire. Unlike the big cities, rough sleepers are rarely seen. People finding themselves without a roof in Chippenham are often taken in by friends and are the ‘Hidden Homeless’ of North Wiltshire”. So we are keen to use any platform available to us to raise awareness. And we cannot afford to miss any opportunity to raise money, as our financial existence is precarious at the best of times.”
One difference this year was that the Church Hall could not be used, due to refurbishment – so no bacon sandwiches in the morning! However, Cafe India most generously provided some food as did a whole host of volunteers – and a splendid buffet spread it was. As a result of this, there was to be no Homelessness Service, but there were speeches by Chippenham Town Mayor Mary Norton and by MP for Chippenham Michelle Donelan, then one by Lisa herself, largely made up of a powerful extract from guest T’s speech at the Doorway AGM of 2011. There then followed an excellent concert by Lingmara world music choir, who have become stalwarts at this event, and finally the now-traditional bedtime stories by BBC Antiques Roadshow’s Marc Allum.
Then it was time for the ‘sleepers’ to settle down in their combinations of cardboard boxes, sleeping bags, tarpaulins and bits of plastic, some of the ‘veterans’ having tried to learn from their experiences in previous years. The weather had been dreadfully wet all day, but the rain held off for the night itself. The night started milder than expected, but there was a big dip in temperature around 3 o’clock, and a lot of wind.
The ‘watchers’ stayed up all night for site security, unlocking the church door for toilet access (yes, we know, real rough sleepers don’t have toilets available), and ready for crises (thankfully, there were none). The St John Ambulance people were also yet again kindly in attendance all night, completely free of charge, as at every previous SleepOut. We really are most grateful to them.
Here are words from some of the participants……
Mayor Mary Norton: It’s a wonderful thing you’re doing. Doorway is a marvellous organisation who do so much good work…. someone can have somewhere to go, get a hot meal, showers, washing, someone to talk to – and I think that’s very important, because people need to be recognised. It’s not the same if someone walks past and thinks “oh, what’s he doing here?’. They don’t know the story behind. And so many people – they’re not there because they choose to, they’re there because circumstances have forced them into it.
Michelle Donelan, MP: I’m very proud that Doorway is in my constituency. I think it’s a wonderful organisation. It has my whole backing and support, and I hope to continue for many years supporting the organisation. I think that just one person who is homeless is one person too many, and whether you’re sofa-surfing or out on the streets, it’s unacceptable in today’s world in the UK.
Lisa Lewis quoting Doorway guest ‘T’: On the street, you live among the threat of violence 24 hrs a day, people spitting at you, calling you a tramp. I’ve got pasted a couple of times, people want to piss on you while you’re lying in a doorway. You can’t sleep properly and you’re freezing cold. One time I was in the door of the optician’s, opposite Woolworth’s and that was in February, and I was absolutely bitter cold. And you know what pissed me off the most, was that Woolworth’s had closed down, and yet every light was on in there, and every bit of heating was on in there. And I was there. It upset you so much to see so many empty buildings that cannot even be opened up when it’s snowing. I find that appalling.
(Guest B): “I want to help Doorway because they’ve helped me. They know the situation I’m in, and what I’ve been in, and things like that. And whatever we can do to raise money and to raise awareness will be fantastic for Doorway. I’ve slept rough myself – slept in cars, on the streets.”
“I’ve not done it before, so I’m stepping into the unknown. We’ll see how I get on. I guess it’s about gaining a new experience really, better understanding as to what it might be like to be one of those poor people who have to sleep on the streets”
“For me, my daughter has no clue, she just lives her little life, and she takes for granted what she’s got. So I’m just trying to educate her that it’s not all sunshine and roses for everyone. And just ‘what if’ this was your life. And it’s not easy, and we’re doing it for one night, but this is some people’s lives. And it doesn’t give them a snapshot of what it’s really like, but if it just makes them reflect a little bit. Even if it’s a dry night, if you’re still wet from the afternoon, it’s miserable”
“That was a long night. I got minutes of sleep here and there. I timed the chimes. It was an experience. It’s one that puts a lot of things in perspective, so very glad in that respect that I’ve done it. It helps the cause and that’s great.”
“Even more grateful now that I’ve got somewhere to live. I heard every single church bell except 5, and when I woke up just now and I heard it go, I thought “please let it be 6 not 5!” I will be doing it again next year…….. We had toilets and hot drinks and the safety of you guys watching us”
“I was pretty apprehensive about the whole thing really. I’d never got involved with anything like this before, and had a huge amount of sponsorship behind me, so was feeling a the pressure a little, but from the minute I got to St Andrew’s, I felt such a sense of support and kindness from everyone – the people organising the event, the words from the Mayor and our MP, the varied and lovely songs from the World Choir, the fabulous St John’s Ambulance folks, the friendly team of people from the Church offering refreshments and Marc Allum, talking about his homeless ‘friends’ sleeping in the churchyard outside his back gate and our increasing need to help. It was so well organised and moving. The thing that really stood out, though, was the words from Lisa. She spoke about their work and how much of a difference this event makes to their ability to support vulnerable people. She read a testimony from a guy, who talked of his experience on the streets and the decline into drink and drugs, and how the Doorway team had ‘taken [him] by the hand….quite literally’ to break the cycle. It made me very emotional and very glad to be there doing something practical, and something that will make a difference. There was a calmness and sense of support about the whole event, which I found pretty special.”
“It’s dry. I was just saying that if I was actually homeless, I would be bedding down for the night in soaking wet clothes now, because it’s been pouring down all day. And I wouldn’t have been getting a lift. I couldn’t have carried my cardboard box and my mat all the way here. I’ve been warm all day, I’ve had a hot cup of tea and something to eat. I’ve got security guards watching me, I’m not going to get beaten up or pissed on or spat on. The reason I’m here is my son, who has been clean a year now, he is a recovering heroin addict. He was living with me, but when he was really into the drugs, he used to go into Bristol to get the drugs, and ended up staying there, and he ended up sleeping on the streets for two years. And while he was on the streets, he got pissed on, spat on, he got beaten up really badly – he nearly died because he got spleen damage. He stayed in touch with me, and I’d go over and see him, and I met a lot of other homeless people. And I’m here because a: I think it’s really good to raise money for it, and b: I think it’s really good to raise awareness, not just for what you do but the situation where people – we’re all two disasters away from it. When I split up with my partner, it was touch and go as to whether I’d be homeless – I was lucky that I found somewhere to stay, but it was touch and go. I have a lot of people say to me, because I talk about it a lot to people, about the situation, and people say to me “yeah, but they’re all addicts”. Do you know what, if I had to do this every night, I might be an addict. Even if people are in that situation because they are an addict, it wasn’t a conscious choice. My mother died of alcoholic liver disease. She was lucky she had us. My mum used to say that she wasn’t an alcoholic and that was because she didn’t see herself as an alcoholic because she wasn’t on a bench with a paper bag. My mum, bless her was doing a bottle of vodka and a bottle of wine a day, and just 3 days before she died, she said to me “I think you may be right, I think I might have a problem”. People think it’s just a working-class problem, but there are doctors, lawyers. There but for the grace of God go any of us, really”
Howard Toplis: “We were very fortunate with the weather because it wasn’t too cold and it stayed dry. Although the ground was hard and none of us got much sleep, we all knew we had a home to go back to. It made us all think about what it would be like if we didn’t have a home to go to, and we had no other choice but to sleep rough again and again. With increasing pressure from funding cuts, and amidst rising levels of homelessness, charities like Doorway provide a vital service for people in need.
The night itself was thought-provoking. It had been totally clear to me from the outset that we were going to come nowhere near replicating the experience of real rough sleepers. We had safety in numbers; we’d be safe from physical and psychological abuse – we weren’t going to get moved on in the dead of night, shouted at, urinated on, we had no long-term mental health issues and fears to contend with; plus the fact that we had drinks provided, access to toilets, even medical help if needed. Even if it was freezing cold or rained all night, it was literally for one night only, we had beds and homes to return to the following day. I spent the night feeling very honoured to have been a part of the SleepOut and to be part of the strong, life-enhancing and life-saving chain which is Doorway”
Thanks again to all sleepers, organisers, helpers, contributors etc etc. We’ll presumably do it all again in 2020. The real rough sleepers did it again the next night. And the next. And…..