Joanna Moorhead joined 150 business leaders who gave up their beds for the night – but sleeping out under the stars didn’t seem so romantic in London in the winter.
It’s 3am and there is no possibility of sleep tonight. I hunkered down four hours ago with such high hopes. Ok, so it’s winter; but it’s not a freezing night, I’m lucky there. The sky is cloudless, so I’m not going to get wet. I’m wearing more clothes than I ever have at night before: three pairs of leggings under a pair of tracksuit bottoms, two t-shirts, a cardigan and a thick fleece. Two pairs of thick socks and a bobble hat for good measure; and I’m zipped into a heavy-duty sleeping bag, with a thick groundsheet underneath me. I knew it wasn’t going to be the most comfortable night of my existence, but I thought I’d drift off and get a few hours’ kip.
But sleeping rough sucks. It sucks when you have to do it all the time, and it sucks when you have to do it for just one night. Even when it’s a specially-organised fundraiser: I was part of something called the CEO Sleepout, the third time the event has been held in London, to raise money for the Cardinal Hume Centre. The charity recruits business leaders and others and asks them to give up their bed for one night, and to sleep out of doors to raise awareness of, and funds for, homeless people.
When Cathy Corcoran, who runs the Cardinal Hume Centre, asked me to take part I said it would be a privilege. And it was; but it was also an eye-opener (literally) about the reality of sleeping rough; and the moment that reality hit me was 3am. There are so many things wrong with sleeping outside. The hard concrete where there should be a comfortable mattress; the sounds of the sirens and the late night revellers – all much, much too close – when there should be quiet. The street lights, bright and intrusive, where there should be darkness. But most of all there’s the cold: even on a not-too-bad winter’s night, there’s the gnawing, paralysing, all-encompassing chill, a chill it’s impossible to escape from, a chill that works its way into the deepest part of your body and takes up residence there, so you can’t think of anything except how good it would be to be burrowed where you normally are at 3am, in your warm, cosy bed.
The irony was that, compared with people who are genuinely homeless, my sleepout was a bit of a picnic. Unlike them, I was not at the complete mercy of the streets: the CEO Sleepout takes place in a secure environment, which this year was Lord’s Cricket Ground in north London. It starts in a more congenial way than night-time does for most of the 3,000 or so people who sleep out on a nightly basis in the capital: for us, there were drinks in the bar and a bowl of hot pumpkin soup. We were feeling jolly as we headed round the back of the stands into the area that would be our perch for the night. And, again, a homeless person would have seen our billet as palatial. We weren’t even entirely exposed to the elements, since we were bedding down between the seats in the stand. We had a roof above us, even if the sides of the stand were open to the elements. We had a bathroom; we even had a shelter where we could go for cups of tea. It really didn’t seem too tough. But my goodness, at 3am it felt very hard indeed.
If the cold is the worst part of the physicality, the vulnerability you feel is the worst part of sleeping out emotionally. Even though we were safely ensconced in the cricket ground, the sounds of London in the small hours didn’t always sound very comforting. When I go to bed at night, I double-lock my front door and the knowledge that I and my children are secure is part of what makes sleep possible. So how must it be to have to drop off to sleep in an environment where you’re completely exposed to danger; where you can do very little, in fact, to protect yourself?
Sleep is a crucial part of our emotional and physical wellbeing, and having a safe and comfortable place in which to have that sleep is a basic human right. It’s deplorable that sleeping rough in the UK is on the increase, and has been on the increase for the last five years or so; and it’s outrageous that, under current legislation in England, many homeless people aren’t even eligible for help from their local authorities. That’s because, to quality for assistance, individuals are graded in criteria including, for example, whether they have children, whether they have mental health problem, and whether they’re under 18. In practice, what this means is that those who don’t meet any of the criteria – which is, most of the homeless population – are simply told to fend for themselves, or to seek help from a charity like the Cardinal Hume Centre or its sibling charity The Passage, both of which were founded by Cardinal Basil Hume when he was Archbishop of Westminster in the 1980s.
Now, though, there is the possibility of change on the horizon – a change that could make next winter a lot warmer than this one for thousands of homeless people. A bill currently going through Parliament is seeking to remove that ‘priority need’ category, as well as the requirement of being already physically homeless before you can be housed. If it goes through, councils will be required to help all those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, 56 days in advance of when they expect to be evicted.
A similar law was passed in Wales in 2014, and that’s led to a reduction in rough sleeping, and a change in attitude towards those who are homeless. That’s the inspiration for the English bill, which seeks to ensure that, in the civilised society we like to think we are, homelessness has no place: not in the winter, not anytime, and not for anyone.
Homelessness: The Facts
- On any one night across England, around 3600 people sleep rough
- The average age of death for homeless men is 47; for women, it’s 43
- One in four people sleeping rough has a mental health problem
- A homeless person is 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person
- Two thirds of rough sleepers say they have been insulted by a member of the public, and one in ten have been urinated on
- Homeless people are at 13 times the average risk of violent crime, and 47 times more likely to be a victim of theft