This column first appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post.
It was 4am on a night so cold it felt like the piercing of a knife. A blurred vision came into focus as I lifted my head from the paving slabs I’d come to call home. A silhouette of a man disappeared into the distance clutching a pizza box above his head, greasy and dripping with indulgence, to protect from the rain. A drop of water felt like it had torn through the skin as it landed on my bare cheek.
I’ve written at length, in this newspaper and beyond, of the devastating consequences of homelessness – and last Friday it was time to put my words into action. I’d agreed to spend a night on the street to raise vital funds for a homeless charity; a group of people bridging the gap left by the government’s lack of action. The Booth Centre offer advice and support to those looking to hoist themselves off the street and back into society. It is more of a hand up, than a hand out.
While I hadn’t admitted it at first, I assumed it would be a doddle. I’d always enjoyed camping with the scouts when I was younger, connecting to nature and the physical world around me. The sense of adventure spurred me on as I found a spot and unwrapped some blankets. A couple of hours of heavy rain had saturated the softer ground and made it impossible to settle without risking trench foot, or at least a soggy sleeping bag, so the large slabs of paving seemed a more sensible, if uncomfortable, option.
As the town hall clock struck 10 bellowing strikes, the atmosphere felt light. That scout spirit that I’d remembered so fondly, danced through the air. I made conversation with people bedding down nearby. A writer and a social worker – both had spotted a poster for a charity sleep out some months ago and fancied a new challenge. It prompted them to notice the growing sea of homelessness around them, on their commute to work, to the pub, to the gym. The problem suddenly became more evident than before. We swapped stories of our jobs, family and lives and shared some snacks and a hot drink.
As our eyes heavied and the tiredness grew, so did the anxiety. How exposed would we be tonight? How cold? How wet? How safe?
The strikes of the town hall bell felt weightier with every hour that past. Twelve, then one – suddenly two and then four. The cold seemed to set into our bones and ten minutes of light sleep, eventually disturbed by a noise, the cold or a drop of rain, felt like a luxury.
The Friday crowd of a nearby bar spilled onto the street. Drunken and without their senses, it was hard to predict how they would react. I’d never felt unsafe on my own streets. I’d felt secure in myself – how I looked and how I should be treated. I had taken it for granted. The very thought that I would be regarded as something inhuman – to be a stain on the street, an inconvenience, a burden – was terrifying. Even for a night, with a bankcard in my pocket and a reasonable explanation. Those that bother to look, look with distain and distrust.
I drove myself through the freezing night with the knowledge that I had a hot shower and a warm bed to retire to come morning. There was a light at the end of my tunnel – it feels hard to imagine the darkness of knowing you have no obvious way out.
What is harder to imagine, is that we are letting this happen; we can stand by and let something wholly avoidable play out on our streets. The cocktail of fixable social issues builds by the day – affordable housing, fair wages and support for local authority drug teams.
To witness this injustice and do nothing makes us complicit. As the problem builds, it should sit like a scar on the conscience of society.
You can still donate to The Booth Centre on this JustGiving page – click here.November 29, 2016 | No Comments