Saturday, 28 March 2015

My night of sleeping rough.

Bear with me if this post is a little rambly. I've not long come home from a night on a sponsored "sleep out" with fellow volunteers from the Winter Night Shelter MK - a homeless shelter in Milton Keynes that operates from December to March, offering overnight accomodation, food and company to homeless men and women in the city.

After the project closed for the year earlier this month, one of the team leaders arranged for some of us to spend a night sleeping rough, being sponsored by friends and family, in order to raise money for the shelter to run next winter, and also as an expression of solidarity with MK's rising homeless population.

(Incidentally, here is my sponsorship page if you'd like to send some pennies our way!)

Thirty volunteers from the project met by the Jaipur restaurant in Central Milton Keynes. The restaurant owner had kindly agreed to let us use a piece of land next door, and also to use the restaurant's toilets until they closed just after midnight! After a health and safety briefing, we settled down to lay out our mats/cardboard/groundsheets/deck chairs and get ready to face a night outdoors. Most were confident that we wouldn't be getting any sleep at all - and with a very jovial festival-like atmosphere in the air, we didn't really mind that thought. 

The Mayor of Milton Keynes, Derek Eastman, came along at 11pm to wish us well and take lots of photos, and the owner from Jaipur joined him to offer a donation of £300 to the fundraiser. Even more welcome than that was the several bags of poppadums that the staff then brought out for us! 

As it was nearing midnight when the restaurant staff and the Mayor left us to it, I decided to try and settle down for the night. I had prepared myself for intense cold, so was wearing 2 pairs of trousers, 2 pairs of socks, 3 tops, a coat, hat and 2 scarves. I was just about warm enough! I zipped myself into my sleeping bag, put my headphones in and turned the music up just loud enough to drown out the traffic and chatter. About 20 minutes later, it started raining! We had previously agreed that if the forecast rain did present itself, we would relocate to a nearby underpass* for the rest of the night, and so we did just that.

*if you don't live in Milton Keynes, an underpass probably means something totally different to you. I had no idea what one was when I moved here, but it's essentially a short subway that is used to traverse the multitude of main roads around MK rather than using pedestrian crossings. 

Making the switch from grass to concrete wasn't welcome, but blessedly the "military grade" (ooh-er) roll mat I had bought turned out to be a worthwhile investment and provided brilliant cushioning from the paving slabs - and I figured out how to use my rucksack as a pillow. Attempt #2 at sleeping proved more successful and although I was cold and uncomfortable, it wasn't too bad. 

Around 3am, I woke again (sleeping on the ground when you have arthritis in your hips is a very achey experience!) and realised that most of the volunteers were sleeping. I was at the very end of my group, and suddenly a feeling of insecurity came over me. I felt vulnerable and exposed. Safety hadn't really been an enormous concern while I was preparing for the event as I knew there would be a big group of us, and the police were very supportive. But actually being there, in the small hours of the morning, with most people asleep and utterly exposed to the world - that was frightening

I started thinking about how people who sleep like this because they have no choice must feel. That anxiety, that intense feeling of vulnerability and isolation - it floored me, and I knew that I would be up and on my way home at 6am, ready for a nice cup of tea and to probably write a blog post about my experience. People who are genuinely homeless have no such thing to look forward to. Everything is an uncertainty. Your safety for the immediate future, your next meal, how people will treat you when they see you, whether you will ever have a warm, stable home again. 

Through volunteering with the shelter I met at least 60 people who had been homeless for varying lengths of time. Their stories were incredible and very grounding - yet no two were the same, and very few involved instances of substance abuse, which is so often the stereotype attributed to homeless people. We were encouraged, as volunteers, to not invest too much emotion in what we were doing. Our purpose was to be there for the night, to provide company, food and somewhere warm and safe to sleep for the night - and so I tried not to dwell too much on what these men and women must have endured while sleeping on the streets. 

You can't participate in a sleep-out like I did last night without that changing. I had the tiniest taste of what it might feel like to be that exposed and vulnerable, and it frightened me. Now that I'm home, comfy and warm again with a huge cup of tea, I am angry. I am so angry that homelessness is on the rise all over the country. I am angry that we have endured a government that, for five years, has demonised the very people I and countless others have spent months volunteering to help. I am furious that the system, which already let too many people slip through the net, has been squeezed and cut to punitive levels, so much so that people are dying as a direct result of welfare cuts and benefit sanctions.

At 5am today, the sun started to rise and we congratulated ourselves on having made it through the night, packed up our sleeping bags and mats and made our ways home. So far the sleep-out has raised £2500 towards helping the Winter Night Shelter operate again from December, and we hope to see more donations come in over the next few days. I hope that reading my rambling brain-fart account of last night might prompt you to send a few pounds our way and help the increasing number of people with nowhere to live in Milton Keynes. 

A few notes:

  • WNSMK opened in 2010 and has run every year since
  • It is staffed by a small group of coordinators, plus aroudn 350 volunteers
  • A different church in MK gives its space to the shelter each night of the week
  • This year, 58 of the 66 guests we've had have been moved on into long term accomodation
  • Since 2010, the WNSMK has helped more than 150 homeless people from MK into stable housing
  • Demand is increasing; since 2010 the YMCA has gone from turning away 30 people a month to 55.