For the first time in my life I’ve just slept rough, outdoors, in the open and in a cardboard box writes Stuart Baillie.
Unlike those who find themselves forced to sleep on the streets I was not alone, I was one of more than 100 people taking part in The Big Sleep on the Stade last night.
While our experience can give us a flavour of what it’s like to sleep rough we were doing it in a controlled environment, for the 300 or so people who have slept rough on the streets of Hastings in the last year they don’t have the luxury of a secure compound, hot soup before bedtime and waking in the morning to hot drinks and porridge.
That issue of security is an important one. I woke at one stage in the early hours and could hear a rowdy group in the distance. I knew our ‘cardboard city’ was surrounded by heras fencing and I knew there were security patrols. What must it be like for a vulnerable homeless person, isolated and alone and worried that they may be about to come to the attention of a bunch of late night revellers?
Past Big Sleeper Steve Sampson told me earlier in the year that one of the biggest lessons he took away from his experiences was the sense of isolation that genuine rough sleepers must feel.
The Big Sleep is the biggest fund raising event of the year for Seaview, a charity based in Southwater Road. The charity’s Chief Officer Annie Whelan describes what the charity does like this: “We’re an open access wellbeing centre offering help and inspiration for people living on society’s margins.”
Part of that work includes funding outreach workers who go out three nights a week to make contact with rough sleepers, checking on their wellbeing and taking action that might be necessary if they discover developing medical issues. The outreach workers do not confine themselves to the town centre, contrary to popular belief rough sleeping is not confined to shop doorways and park benches, many rough sleepers find themselves resting places well beyond the edges of the town.
But back to my experience last night. My efforts will hopefully put close to £400 in to Seaview’s coffers. I was taking part in the event with a close friend, Mike Mitchell, and we arrived on The Stade just after 8pm.
For the first couple of hours there’s a music stage and last night’s performers included Bobby Fuego’s Fast Fingers of Funk and The Haystingers, a hillbilly band. This part of the evening is open to the general public, entry is free but there are plenty of opportunities for those enjoying the music to be able to donate. By 10pm the music stage shuts downs and the Big Sleepers start to prepare for their night in a box.
King Size Slim provided an acoustic set around the brazier, then Pete Donohue entertained the sleepers with a specially written ‘bed-time story’.
Then it’s off to bed. I’d worn plenty of layers, I expected it to be cold in the early hours, and it was tricky manoeuvring my way in to my sleeping bag inside the box. My rucksack acted as a pillow and I snuggled down for the night.
Sleep came relatively easily but perhaps unsurprisingly I stirred several times during the night as the noises of the town; everything from people, to cars, to motorbikes to seagulls created a level of disturbance. I surprised myself by finding things a bit too warm when I fully woke at around 2am. A coupe of adjustments and I was sleeping soundly again through until just after 6am.
I was probably one of the first to wake but within half an hour cardboard city had come to life and the sleepers were enjoying teas, coffees and hot porridge. Thirty minutes after that cardboard city had been demolished as all the Big Sleepers broke down the boxes that had been their home for the night.
Money is still coming in but we were told last night that the total donated so far was in the region of £15,000, a fantastic effort so far.
The Big Sleep does go some way to helping us understand what spending the night in the open is like but we were resting in a controlled and secure environment and the real rough sleepers in our town do not have that luxury.
I only found out about Seaview a few months ago and have been hugely impressed by the work of Annie Whelan and Project manager Sue Burgess. What is truly reassuring is how clear it is that those working for the charity – both staff and volunteers – have a passion for what they do and it is equally easy to see that no money is wasted on unnecessary comforts, the money the charity has is spent on the people who need it most.
In 365 days time I’ll happily be there to do it all again!