On Friday 20th March we held a sleep out at the Cathedral. Following the event we asked the people who took part to pledge to do something. One of the things we asked our supporters was to write a story/blog of their experience. This is a particularly thought provoking example of one individual’s experience of sleeping on the streets.
Thinking Out Loud
The best part of a Sleep Out for the Cathedral Archer Project is the not-sleeping.
Here comes a tram, which groans to a halt at the stop in front of the Cathedral and disgorges the Friday night revellers; mostly young people whose pale, exposed flesh puts to shame the layers of clothes I am wearing to keep me warm through the long night ahead. The bright screens of their mobile phones flash as they scurry off to their chosen destinations to meet their friends, where they will gather together in some trendy bar in West Street or Division Street and spend the evening texting other people. Some glance across with curious expressions to where I and my comrades-in-sleeping-bags are scattered along the ground in front of the cathedral, but they don’t stop. I suspect that with their lack of clothing they need to keep moving or risk freezing to death.
“So, what made you come here tonight,” I ask an amiable woman who is making up a bed for herself and her daughter on a foundation of cardboard next to where I and my partner have stretched out our sleeping bags.
“It was my daughter,” she says with mock ruefulness. Her daughter is about twelve and when I look at her for an explanation she gives me an infectious smile that belies the serious look in her concerned eyes.
“I read about the Sleep Out in a newsletter,” she says. “It’s something we should do because we’ve got everything and some people have got nothing.”
She makes me smile. The uncomplicated thought process of the young. No thought of why you shouldn’t do it. In the modern idiom, it’s simples. She leans her back against the cathedral wall, pulls her knees up under her chin and wraps her arms around them, watching intently the scene before us as taxis and buses flash by beneath the streetlights.
“Why are you here,” she asks eventually with a shy glance at me.
In that same moment, a young man, looking slightly unsteady on his feet, shouts out from the pavement about thirty yards away, “What are you lot doing over there?”
Nobody answers and his female companion unfolds her arms from across her chest and pulls him away.
“Good question,” I reply to the girl and follow it with, “Same as you.”
Good question indeed, I think to myself as I adopt the same pose as the young girl and stare at the unfolding story of city nightlife. I’m here because I’m led by my lovely, socially aware partner, who is already burrowing her feet into her sleeping bag, having come to the conclusion, after much debate, that it’s best to keep her boots on. I would follow her anywhere, but on this occasion it suddenly occurs to me that there’s more to it than that. Sitting in the shadowed corner of the cathedral wall with a chill breeze fanning my face, I can see the life of the city, but I, along with my companions for the night, am not part of it. Some people glance in our direction, but none stop.
“I’ve been here before,” I say, turning to the young girl.
“What do you mean?” she asks as her mother shifts her position on their makeshift bed so she can hear what I have to say.
I have to think about what I’m going to say. It’s not something I have spoken about for most of my adult life. I don’t want to be drawn into a complicated story.
“I’ve been homeless,” I say.
“What was it like?” she asks. I can see the genuine interest in her eyes.
“A bit like this, but alone,” I say, hoping that’s enough, but she wants more.
“Why were you homeless?”
“I didn’t have a family and I didn’t have a home.”
This is getting into territory I’m uncomfortable with, but she is so pretty and earnest that I have to go on.
“I was brought up in children’s homes,” I explain. “When the time came you were sent out into the world to fend for yourself. There were no aftercare services.”
“But they didn’t just send you onto the streets, did they?” she blurts out with a look of shock.
“No, I had lodgings to go to.”
“Well that’s something,” she says with relief. “Why didn’t you stay there?”
I have to pause. How can you explain such things to a child? Fortunately, her mother seems eager to stop her pressing me and insists it’s time for her to get some sleep and even though the girl protests she gets under the covers and puts her head down. Her mother lies down next to her and puts her arm around her.
For the next few hours I watch the night-time play go through its familiar acts until the buses and trams stop running, the drunks bawl and argue their way home and only lonely taxis are left to plough the streets alone. That girl has got under my skin and all the while I am thinking. Maybe, of all the people on this sleep out, she is the one who really wants to get under the skin of this homeless thing and not just do her thing for a worthwhile charity? Why did I make myself homeless? That’s the thing about homelessness most people struggle to understand.
Start at the beginning. I left the approved lodgings I had been placed in after a life in care because it was part of the system; a system I never wanted to be part of again. In my mind I ran away, although in retrospect no one came after me. I felt like a fugitive; from what it’s hard to say, but that feeling stayed with me for years. At first I went to London and stayed there for quite a while, but after that I travelled around the country and also around Europe. I did any temporary job I could find, whatever it was. If I had money I rented places to stay, but because I always hitchhiked from place to place to an uncertain timetable and because finding a job was not guaranteed I often slept out wherever I could. If it was in the country it was in fields, under hedges or in abandoned buildings. If it was in the city was out of sight in alleys or stairwells; even, on more than one occasion, in public toilets. Even if I had no money I never signed on to the dole. I would never submit myself to any authority. I would have died first.
Eventually I broke out of that existence, settled down, started a family and made my way through life with increasing success until I find myself where I am now, cold and tired among people who have taken some time out from their everyday lives to help others. The young girl is invisible under her sleeping bag. I hope she’s sleeping well. They say the city never sleeps, but it’s starting to doze. Remarkably, no one has approached us despite a few catcalls. The thought brings a particular memory into sharp focus. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to feeling again what I felt so often all those years ago. Here we are in plain sight yet we don’t exist. Somewhere in this city tonight is someone like my former self; invisible in plain sight; in the city but not of the city; move on please.
I get some sleep, of sorts. In the morning we are awoken to a hot breakfast by the good people of the Cathedral Archer Project and receive our Sleep Out certificates and wristbands. We all feel good, but that mother with the young girl clutching her certificate should feel especially proud. I wish I could tell the girl everything she wants to know, but she’s too young to hear such things.