Last night I slept outside the union of the University of Sheffield, as part of Rough It, a scheme organized by the university politics and history societies to raise money towards a Sunday breakfast club, which is run by the Salvation Army in the city.
Even after sleep and a shower I still feel a bit achy and tired, so I’m very glad I’ve helped raise some money for people who have to do this regularly, and thought I would share some of my thoughts about the night.
At half past seven we settled down under the concourse with our cardboard and sleeping bags and went through how the night would work. This would in no way be an authentic night of sleeping rough in the way men and women across our country do every night of the year – we were lucky enough to have access to the union for toilet facilities and hot water and of course were surrounded by friends and were all well prepared.
One of the most traumatic moments was when the tea supply looked in danger due to the greedy cup habits of a group of serious board gamers in the union. I’m not sure but I am guessing dungeon and dragons are not a pressing problem for many people genuinely facing homelessness in Sheffield, but I do think we all got a valuable insight into some of the issues.
Firstly two of the organisers of the Sunday breakfasts for the homeless came and spoke to us. The most striking thing that I took from listening to them speak is that nearly everyone hopes and expects that if we face a downturn in luck or become destructive to ourselves that family and friends will support us and be a safety net. Many people simply don’t have that support net and therefore slip onto the streets.
They told us about the squats across Sheffield and the terrible state which they find them in. This really shocked me – having a roof over your head always seems preferable to being outside on the street all night – but from their descriptions the squats are really dangerous and unhealthy to live in. I am quite ashamed to know I have lived in close proximity to people living in these conditions and I have never given much thought to it. There’s no guarantee that anyone of us won’t face the situation of being without a safe home one day and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important to try and help.
As the night went on we played some board games, had a chat and got pizza. One of the things which made me think about the real experience of the homeless was the reactions we got from other students. Of course many asked what we were doing, offered their support and donated. Many more asked what we were protesting about (“we’re not protesting!”) and a few questioned the worth of what we were doing. As the club filled up we got the odd person who decided to offer their (frankly quite offensive) opinions on homelessness. If I was truly homeless I imagine this might be even more frequent and definitely more hurtful. The men from the Salvation Army told us that they serve the guys breakfast to show them some respect which they lack from most people the rest of their week. Having people ignore you and pass judgement on your situation must be frustrating but also very degrading.
When I finally decided to attempt to get some sleep I found out that sleeping rough even after a lovely spring day is very cold and uncomfortable. It seems quite obvious but the temperature was the toughest part, even with many layers it was really hard to ignore. The lack of comfort was also coupled with the feelings of insecurity to make for not a great night of sleep. I was in a large group full of people I know and trust, next to our union which had security watching out for us and still hearing people walking past us made me find it very difficult to relax enough to sleep. I think this must be one of the worst parts of not having a home. Home is supposed to be the safe haven you go to and can be secure to rest and get ready for another day. Without this how people are expected to go and solve all their complicated issues with any energy I really don’t understand.
I hope my one night sleeping rough will really give me more empathy with those I see in this horrible situation and also raise some money to allow some of them to be able to have one meal a week in a safe and friendly environment. The money we have raised will go to providing food and running costs for the breakfast scheme but also provide practical gifts such as sleeping bags and gloves. I am really glad to have done my small part to support the honourable aim that the Salvation Army volunteers shared – not trying to change the world on a Sunday morning, just making a few people’s world a bit more tolerable for a few hours every week.
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