Saturday 5th November 2016
It’s 8am and I have just got back home to the friends’ house where I am staying for the winter, after doing the Booth Centre's Manchester Sleepout.
Scrolling through the photos on my phone and enjoying the warmth of the dawn sunlight streaming through the windows, all I can think this morning is: how lucky I am. To be alive. To be warm. To have a bed to fall into when I eventually get tired enough. To have the love and support of friends and the kindness of strangers to cheer me on. To know there’s food in the fridge and hot water in the bathroom to wash in. Sure it’s the basics, but it’s the basics that I sometimes forget to be grateful for, and the basics that the people I was fundraising for last night don’t have access to. Basic necessities, basic human rights, the things all humans need to have some kind of dignity.
I thought we were in for a really tough night. The day stormed on, the Manchester skies turned a familiar grey and the early evening gave us a steady downpour. I arrived to register at the Cathedral early, and watched the sodden crowds appearing, shaking water from their coats, off umbrellas, out of their ears. My friend Helen ran over to hug me when we found each other. She was drenched. There was soup, tea, snacks. Warm water in the toilets. Little groups huddled around the building to listen to the welcome.
The Canon David Holgate gave a warm opening, saying how close the Booth Centre and its work is to the hearts of those in the Cathedral. I was touched that he and two other canons were also sleeping rough with us. He described the scene of the sleep outers in front of him as a ‘crazy Glastonbury vibe.’ I volunteer at Glastonbury every year and I thought – yes, there is a similar sense here tonight of camaraderie, outdoor adventures and sleeping close to strangers.
Amanda Croome, the Booth Centre CEO gave us a picture of the work done in figures; the 700 hot meals served every week, the 489 people placed in temporary accommodation over the last year, the 250 individuals the centre supports every week. Like last year, she told us that street homelessness has risen to the highest levels for twenty five years.
It makes me so angry that in our rich and beautiful and diverse and creative and amazing city, some people are so poor, and so trapped in that poverty. Charity is never an act of total altruism; it gave me the chance to do something practical, bat away some of the frustration and hopelessness I feel about the times we’re living through. It’s like we’ve gone right back to the 80s. I don’t mean batwing jumpers or moonwalking or New Romantics or bad haircuts. I mean the conscious cruelty of the drastic cuts over the last six years; the sharp rise in poverty and homelessness; the lack of hope for a future. Can we stop this now; it’s not what we ordered. I’d like a different world please.
It made me think about my reasons for doing the big sleep out. I’ve volunteered in the Mustard Tree soup kitchen once a month, for four years, and seen the situation for homeless people getting worse. I wanted to raise funds, to give the small amount that I can to the Booth Centre, so that they can keep on providing the hot breakfasts and dinners and training and job clubs and drama and art activities. To help get people off the streets and back on their feet and into a place where they can see a future again. To raise awareness of how stark the situation is for rough sleepers right now with the budget slashes to services for debt and housing advice, for mental health, for drug and alcohol addiction and the closure of hostels.
But mainly it’s because I want to show solidarity with the people who have nothing; no home, no hope and no protection against the weather. I wanted to sleep outside just for one night and experience what life’s like for them, every night.
Two people who've been supported by Booth Centre spoke. Chris now has accommodation and he volunteers with the Booth Centre because he wants to give something back. He told us that being on the streets is soul destroying. He gave us a couple of tips. Find somewhere dry. Stick with your friends. There’s safety in numbers. He wished us a peaceful and dry night, and I was glad of his blessing, for the wishes came true. Danny gave us similar advice, and shared his own story of a full mental breakdown, followed by a discharge from a hospital when he had nowhere to go. Four years later he’s back on his feet, and he talked about the hope, help and friendship offered at the Booth Centre. He thanked everyone sleeping out for their support, and the Booth Centre for giving him back his pride. I thought they were inspiring to get up and share such difficult stories. Danny’s gratitude made me cry.
After a lively performance from Streetwise Opera, it was time to head outside into the night. We found a spot up close to the cathedral and bedded down, with cups of tea and cardboard and the inevitable selfies for social media. The meeting of two very different worlds.
It was cold. Even though we were incredibly lucky and it stopped raining at around 10pm, I shivered for most of the night. I lay and watched clouds covering us and clearing, and looked up at the stars, feeling protected by the ancient Cathedral building behind me.
I felt the lack of privacy acutely. Folks falling out of pubs at closing time wandered past, stopped and stared. They inquired very loudly why there were so many humans bedded down on the grass. Last year one drunken man leered at me over the wall. ‘Alright darlin’ - any room for me in that sleeping bag?’ His mates thought him hilarious. The stewards were near, nothing would happen to me in the midst of three hundred other fundraisers, I reassured myself. But it made me think once again; how life on the streets must be petrifying for women, constantly at risk of sexual harassment and assault. They must never get a sound night’s kip.
It was anxiety-making. We had it easy, tucked away from passers-by inside the Cathedral walls, and no drugs or alcohol allowed. But still; I was frightened that someone would be careless or clumsy and trip over me. I’m on one crutch, recovering after breaking a bone in my left foot and snapping the tendons. Two guys in front of me woke me up and wriggled out of their sleeping bags. One of them caught hold of the other to stop him stumbling over. I guess he was tired and therefore unsteady. ‘He nearly joined you in that sleeping bag,’ said his mate, thinking I’d find it a funny joke. I didn’t.
It was noisy. Sirens screeched as the emergency services navigated the chaos that is Friday Night Out turned Early Hours of Saturday Morning. Clatters and bangs came from the construction workers putting Manchester’s outdoor ice rink together. Street sweepers appeared. Trains rumbled in the distance; there was a constant hum of traffic and car horns. Ear plugs, I thought. That’s what I didn’t pack.
Eventually I dozed off, some while before we were moved on. I woke up to the rustling of orange survival bags all around me – this year’s must-have for would-be rough sleepers. ‘Morning,’ said my neighbour. The sky was turning from pitch black to blue, but dawn was still some way off. ‘It’s packing up time.’ I dozed a bit longer, before Amanda came over to tell us there was breakfast in the Cathedral. ‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘Bacon or egg sandwiches.’ That was enough motivation to get me out of my warm sleeping bag and stand upright in the cold early morning air. Helen was still sleepy. ‘C’mon. There’s bacon butties inside.’ She bestirred herself.
We got our certificates, and took more photos together inside the Cathedral. I was proud of myself for doing the event, and staying outside all night. But it’s only one night. Easy if you can come straight home to a bath and a washing machine afterwards. I can’t imagine how tired and befuddled I would become if I had to do this every night. The exhaustion must have such an impact on mental health and wellbeing. I’ve a whole year to recover before the next sleepout.
I waved Helen onto the tram, then struggled home with all my bedding and jumpers. The living room was full of winter sunshine. I flopped onto the sofa and opened my laptop to write, enjoying the peace and the solitude.
When I unpacked, a postcard fell out of my bag. A reminder of a cinema trip with a friend earlier in the week. It was from one of the most heart-wrenching but authentic state-of-the-nation films I’ve seen in recent years.
We Are All Daniel Blake.
We Are All Rough Sleepers.