I've been a bit quiet on the old blog front lately because I've been doing actual paid work, meaning that unfortunately the voluntary work has taken a bit of a back step. I've got some interesting things coming up in the near future though, so rest-assured, I'm going to be ranting and raving again very soon! I've been busy doing some fantastic freelance projects, and one of the organisations I've been working with (I don't like to call them 'clients', it's far too impersonal) is a fantastic charity called Only A Pavement Away.
Only A Pavement Away is a charity that supports people who are facing homelessness, ex-offenders and veterans into jobs in the hospitality industry. They act as the conduit between charities and employers to help people who face barriers to employment to start new careers. They were really lucky to be one of the chosen charities to benefit from this year's London CEO Sleepout, which is charity that calls on CEOs, business leaders, bosses, and senior execs to spend one night sleeping outdoors. They then use all money raised to work towards fighting homelessness in whichever city the event has taken place in. They work all over the country, including in Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Darlington, and have raised almost £3m to date. The idea behind the challenge is to get people to experience in one night what homeless people have to go through night after night, albeit in a safe and controlled environment. It's so easy for people to dispassionately pass people in the street and make cruel assumptions about why they are there. I've certainly learned in the time I've been working with Only A Pavement Away that it's a lot more complicated than that, and that there are a whole range of factors that might contribute to someone living on the street. The CEO Sleepout exercise highlights just one of the elements that someone on the street has to think about (their living situation), it doesn't even take into consideration the stressful aspects that contributed to how got there.
For the last five years, the London Sleepout has been hosted at Lord's Cricket Ground, and this year's event was due to take place on 22nd November. Along with three amazing colleagues from Only A Pavement Away, I was asked to partake in the event back in about August, when the weather was still warm and winter seemed ages away. It doesn't usually take much to pursuade me to go to Lord's, and this time was no different. What I hadn't really thought about when I agreed to do this challenge was the stark reality that I'd be sleeping outdoors in late November - yes, I was still a bit to dewy-eyed about the prospect of staying at Lord's for the night. After agreeing to it a few months ago, I didn't really think about it much between then and now, but as things started getting colder and darker in the last few weeks, I was beginning to look forward to the event less and less.
And before I knew it, the night had come.
Just as my heating came on, it was time for me to leave my house and head up to the home of cricket. Usually when I go there, I’m super-excited – tonight, I was nervous... The event was really well-organised from the get-go, as we'd had a lot of communication in the last month regarding fundraising and kit lists and they'd laid out the expectations about as well as they could have done (nothing can really prepare you for it until you actually do it though).
I'd met Amy and Dolores from Only A Pavement Away at St John's Wood Station before we headed off to Lord's, and we were meeting Karen at the ground. On the way, we were discussing what we'd brought with us, what we were going to be sleeping on and in and how we were slightly nervous about what our experience might be like.
When we got there, we started off in the Long Bar in the Member's Pavilion, with a photography exhibition and some butternut squash soup. Then, some representatives from the beneficiary charities got up and spoke about their organisations (Karen was ace). Kerri Douglas, who was previously homeless and has managed to turn her life around with the support of charity, gave an incredibly moving speech about what it was like for her experiencing homelessness, how she got there and how she pulled herself out of it. I don't think I can even begin to do her story justice by precising it here, so I'll let you know that she's written a book, Kerri Douglas: From Pavements to Parliament: Gutter to Glory. If you want to order a copy of this book, I urge you to contact CEO Sleepout, as that way all of the proceeds will go to Kerri (and not Amazon). Kerri's is such an inspiring story, and really goes to show how grit and determination can keep you going in the most horrific of situations.
It was hard, like, concrete hard...
The talks were really inspiring, and set us up well for the night ahead, however, it's the sort of event that you can't really say you're prepared for unless you've done it previously. Before we knew it, we were off to the Tavern Stand to pitch up and lay out our bedding. I'd layered-up earlier in the day and was wearing about six medium layers as well as my big coat, and I had a good sleeping bag which I laid on top of the yoga mat, cardboard box and picnic blanket I'd already put out. I was wearing a pair of Pusser's Thicks, which are Navy-issue socks that my brother gave me about a decade ago, and they are simply the warmest, most wonderful socks you can wear in the winter. They actually saved me from foot-rot at a festival once, and have been my friends in extreme weather conditions ever since.
We got ourselves a hot drink and got chatting to a few of the other people there, some CEOs, some representatives from charities, but all there to try to empathise with what it might be like to sleep outdoors.
Then, it was time to 'sleep'. By the time everyone settled down, it was close to 1.30am, but we had already been trying to sleep since about 11.30pm. What hit me wasn't how cold it was, because I'd wrapped-up pretty well, but just how HARD it was. Concrete is not something designed to be slept on, and despite the layers, it seemed to penetrate through everything. I didn't sleep much, with that and the noise from the main road, but I certainly gained a monumental appreciation of how lucky I am to have a bed to sleep in.
At around 5.30am, everyone started getting up and packing away their belongings. When we got up, it was two degrees! With this, another thought hit me that it must be so difficult to be living on the streets with all your worldly belongings being right there with you. We were able to get up and go for a bacon roll and a cup of tea, before going home to our heated houses which just seemed so unjust when there are so many people who don't get to do that.
I don't think anything can really prepare you for living in the outdoors, so I can't even imagine what it must be like for the circa 300k people who don't have permanent accomodation. All I can say is that the thought of sleeping outside in a sleeping bag through the whole of winter is something that no one should have to experience, yet there are people who have no choice. It makes me feel humbled by the fact I am lucky enough to have a home I can feel safe in and a bed I can sleep soundly in. The general passer-by can in no way judge how someone got to be on the streets, but they can act with compassion, by either buying someone a coffee, stopping to talk to someone to ask them if they are okay, or by working with or donating to a charity that might help get people off the street.
Will I do it again?
I'd certainly consider it, because I think it can only be a good thing to be reminded of what people might experience when living outdoors - even if it is in a controlled, safe and friendly environment. As someone from a safe, loving background, I can't even begin to understand the situations which led people to a life on the streets, let alone how scared they must feel every single day. Me and the Only A Pavement Away team raised over £1,300 for our charity, and it's an organisation I'm truly proud to be a part of. If we can help just a few people off the streets and into a secure and rewarding career, then it's worth it.