Last year a Northampton Borough Council investigation found that there were around two dozen habitual rough sleepers in Northampton.
On Friday January 27 this year at The Big Sleep Out, 170 house dwellers (what do you call the non-homeless?) bedded down in Abington Park for the night to raise funds for them.
Over £40,000 is predicted to come in and you can still add to the total.
I joined the sleeper outers (my Just Giving page is here) and somehow it felt ironic that we vastly outnumbered the town’s real rough sleepers. Around half a dozen usually sleep in Abington Park and there we were crowding into their bedroom full of good intentions, coffee and cake. They probably thought we were one tent short of a festival.
My favourite curmudgeon has had words with me about The Big Sleep Out. His basic complaint is that there is not enough suffering on the part of the participants. It is not, after all, a camping event.
“You’re supposed to be getting a taste of what it’s like to be on the streets,” he complains.
I must admit when arrived at Abington Park Café, generously open to support the event, I was struck by the determined work that some of the early arrivals were already putting into their shelters. Tables and chairs were being pressed into service to hold up tarpaulins and plastic sheeting. Cardboard was being laid out to bed down on. The bandstand filled up quickly and even acquired a tarpaulin wall. The atmosphere was upbeat.
It was nothing like being homeless. Of course. How could it be? Not having somewhere to sleep is often the smallest problem in the life of a homeless person which might be blighted with mental health issues, addictions or physical illness. And one night sleeping out is not the point – it’s the every night that is the problem.
The money raised by The Big Sleep Out funds the work of the Hope Centre which aims to help the homeless take back control of their lives. In many ways the relatively small number of rough sleepers is a testament to their work intervening before people end up on the streets.
Robin Burgess, the Chief Executive of Hope, (which is quite a cool job title) was outside the café in a high vis jacket. He confirmed that he would be seeing it through until 8am and I asked him how he felt the night was going.
“We are doing the stewarding making sure everyone is feeling, safe and secure. I think there are quite a lot of people here. It’s my first night doing it. The most important thing is build a good shelter first up because if it rains and it collapses in the middle of the night – not a good idea. Make sure you build something secure, ideally against a wall,” he explained.
I’m not that impressive as a homeowner but I’m a lot less impressive as a homeless person. I hadn’t even moved the table that I had based my shelter around, let alone found a wall. If homelessness was a reality TV show I would almost certainly have been thrown back into civilised society on the first episode.
I wondered about the people who experience it for real and asked Robin if they would be watching us.
He said: “After we have all moved away there will be six people sleeping in this park. We pretty much know every single rough sleeper in Northampton. I was talking to someone on Tuesday who told me he built a den in this park and slept here for months. They all come into the day centre, maybe not every day, some every week. People are here. They are all around us. We probably won’t see them but they are here. Unless housing policy changes, house prices improve, rents go down, homelessness will continue to rise. It is a dangerous and horrible existence.”
When I was struggling across the park in the dark with everything I had for the night piled up in my arms, I was glad that it wasn’t part of my daily routine. If I had to carry everything I owned with me everywhere I wouldn’t take much of anything anywhere. Hypothermia or complete exhaustion is not much of a lifestyle choice.
And I wasn’t bone cold from spending the whole day outside, or tired from walking miles and I had on the very best in clothing technology I could muster. Fleeces, dry socks, layers upon layers. I had broken into a sweat by the time I dumped my stuff and signed in. The cloud cover was trading us a mild night for a bit of light rain.
The truth was, I was so terrified of being cold all night that I had stuffed my backpack with extra layers and forgotten my sleeping bag. The long suffering H drove down and delivered it to me. The carbon footprint of my night as a homeless person was looking decidedly dodgy.
The support network keeping me sleeping rough all night included a café, numerous stewards, an emergency package driven out to me from home, the best outdoor gear from the shelves of Aldi and my own car parked nearby.
Darren and Rees are from Reach Out Northampton which is the support network that looks out for real rough sleepers. In many ways they take over from the Hope Centre on a Friday night and go looking for vulnerable people out on the streets, keeping an eye on the welfare of people they know and noticing if someone has gone missing.
So who is out there?
“We are finding Russians, Romanians, Polish quite a bit,” said Darren. “There is English, people in the deaf community, not many ladies. We have people who have come out of prison. One guy was explaining the reason why he doesn’t trust the system is that he was getting rent demands while he was in prison for a property he obviously wasn’t in. It’s ludicrous.”
Rees added: “We are starting to notice a lot of younger homeless people who have come out of supported accommodation, more soldiers who might be suffering from ptsd (post traumatic stress disorder) and are not reintegrating back into society. Sometimes it is the same faces with new problems. People who have been taking legal highs and are much closer to death than they realise. Homelessness will always be with us in some form. It is about how we come together to deal with it.”
During the night I encountered people from all walks of life shuffling their way into the café to use the loo or have a biscuit. Former Northampton MP Sally Keeble was dishing out moral support. There was a pod of Conservative councillors bedding down in the bushes. Kettering Business Network had some problems keeping the rain out of their shelter. I saw Ian Bates from the Umbrella Fair Organisation arrive on his bicycle and I would have said hello but I had just got cosy…
The next pitch along from mine belonged to Elissa Shrive who lives a ten minute walk from the park. She had installed an umbrella over a chair and wrapped herself in a sleeping bag.
She was unexpectedly alone for the night: “I got enlisted to come here. I thought some work colleagues were going to meet me here but I cannot find them. I wrote a verse to read out to them. In for a penny in for a pound…
We are gathered here tonight
To make aware and appreciate
Our warm homes and the plight of others
The cold, the hardship they endure
Some are frozen to the core
We must be thankful
For what we have
A nice warm home
And an indoor lav
“I thought I’d end it on a light note but it’s true actually. It’s my first time, I’m enjoying but it’s early. It’s not quite as cold as it was last night.”
You can hear Elissa reading her verse at our NQTV YouTube channel.
Sleeping out for one night, supported by the experts, a benign blanket of light rain cloud and the Abington Park Cafe was much more fun than hardship. It was difficult to sleep in the damp but difficulty sleeping does not strike me as the biggest problem facing real rough sleepers.
As a young reporter I got properly involved with the life of a rough sleeper called Jimmy in Bedford.
By liaising with various people that a journalist could pick up the phone and talk to but a homeless person couldn’t, I secured Jimmy a flat, a job collecting supermarket trolleys and an appointment to see a heart specialist. A week after his triumphant return to ‘normal’ life after years on the streets he was back in our office asking to see me.
He looked a bit ragged and as soon as we were in private he burst into tears, apologising profusely. He was saying sorry because he was back on the streets.
The people he drank with ‘under the arches’ had found his flat and had come visiting. A flood of official letters (the bureaucracy of returning to the system in the 1990s) had also unnerved him because he couldn’t read. The advice from his peer group was clear cut and reassuringly familiar – back to the streets.
Jimmy lasted about another year before his heart problem took his life, not because sleeping out was hard but because it was the frighteningly easy option for him.
The part of rough sleeping that we did at The Big Sleep Out – enduring the elements and getting cheered up with hot coffee – was the easy bit. If anything that is the lesson we should learn from it. It is not the cold that stops us from crawling into the shadow of a bush or a bin at night – it is our lives, having somewhere else to be.
So if you really want to tackle homelessness are talking about changing someone’s life and that is not something, as I found out, that you can do in a superficial way. It is a long, complicated and expensive job and the people that do it need every penny they can get.