Mia puts the finishing touches to our (large) shelter
On Friday night I joined scores of other volunteers across Hull, Grimsby and Scunthorpe to spend the evening sleeping rough. We did so to raise money for the YMCA’s youth homelessness program. At last year’s ‘Sleep Easy‘ event 75 people raised over £15,000 in the region.
I decided to join in this year to try to make a real difference to young people sleeping on the streets, as well as learn more about what life is like when you have no home in the middle of winter. My skating team mate, Mia, also joined me at the City Life Project in Hull, a homeless centre I’d done a bit of volunteering at during the summer. I thought I should share my experience too, not because it’s typical or because I want to claim to speak for people on the street, but to spark some thinking about street homelessness.
It turned out we were sleeping in a bare courtyard rather than on the street itself but it was no less cold and uncomfortable. The previous night had seen snow, which had disappeared, but the temperature was soon below zero and the sky was clear. We had access to a kitchen with tea making facilities and a pan of soup, in case conditions became too dangerous, but we both wanted it to be as realistic an experience as possible.
We began by unloading the car of cardboard taken from a supermarket and cobbled together a shelter with little plan other than to include a thick floor, some walls and a roof. It took some time to build as we bent and taped cardboard into a large square box. If we’d have needed shelter quickly we’d have been well and truly caught out. Furthermore, we were privileged to have use of a vehicle to bring all the materials in. Out on the streets such a luxury would be out of our reach.
To keep warm I had on long johns beneath my jeans and a shirt, jumper, hoodie and weather proof jacket, along with scarf and gloves. Despite wearing three pairs of socks, including some made from thick Icelandic wool, my toes still tried to detach themselves from my foot as the cold set in.
We later decided to take a little walk to warm up and pass some time. The moment you sit or stand still is the moment the cold really takes hold. Surrounded by other campaigners we had plenty of conversation to keep ourselves entertained but this was another luxury. Were I on my own what would I do? I’d have no mobile with access to twitter or text messages and newspapers don’t last long.
We climbed into our sleeping bags around 1am. Our shelter was ramshackle and the gaps in the cardboard let an icy draught tease its way inside. No matter how I shifted my body the cold left its touch somewhere. Always exposed was my face and my nose still feels cold, like sun burn. I tried sleeping with my scarf pulled across my face but it only stifled my hot breath and felt suffocating, so I made do with the fresh air tickling my nose and making it run constantly.
Saying that, I was generally quite ‘warm’. Not comfortably so, but I never felt like I was at risk of slipping into hypothermia and I rarely shivered. The cardboard floor did a good job of insulating us from the cold concrete but we had gone a little overboard with it, packing it a few inches deep.
After an hour I woke to notice the roof was sagging and I became acutely aware of the precarious state of our shelter. It looked as those we’d shifted in our sleep and pushed one of the walls aside. With the roof hanging low I began to feel claustrophobic but afraid to move lest the whole thing collapse.
At this point I also noticed the din of revellers in the city centre. Their voices carried through the still night and became an irritant. When some of the voices turned aggressive I was thankful to be in a secure yard, conscious that sleeping on the street could make you an easy target for drunk thugs. I’m not much of a fighter and I try to find my way out of trouble, such as when the police kettle or charge at demonstrations, by staying alert. Sleeping on the street means letting go of any control over yourself and that, to me, is unthinkable.
Sleep itself was intermittent and I often stirred with my body crying to change position when my boney hips rubbed on the floor or my knees, tucked into my stomach, began to ache. Confined by the space there was little I could do to find comfort but when I noticed Mia had moved around slightly I was elated to be able to stretch my legs just a little bit.
Around 4am I felt a pang in my bladder. Drinking tea earlier in the evening to keep warm had come back to haunt me as the diuretic plyed its trade inside me. Finding relief would mean waking Mia to be able to leave our box and I resolved to hold it in. Fortunately, again, we did have a toilet available, but what if we’d been doing this ‘properly’?
Tea was the best thing we had to warm us up but that requires heat. You can’t plug a kettle in in a shop doorway. More than once I thought it’d be nice to have a tot of whisky but alcohol had been barred. In such freezing conditions I can see how people turn to alcohol or stronger substances to stave off the cold. Addictions among people who are homeless tend to begin after somebody loses their home, contrary to much popular opinion.
Morning was greatly welcomed despite the lack of proper sleep, though I think this feeling stemmed more from knowing it was over than an eagerness to get up and about. The temperature had fallen further still, or at least felt like it, which made packing my sleeping bag a challenge for my exposed finger tips.
After we left Hull was covered in a blanket of snow that’s been well reported in the media. I’ve no idea how people who are homeless know what weather to expect or how to prepare for it. I’m not sure Mia and I could have coped either: we had black bin bags to ‘waterproof’ our shelter but I doubt it could have handled the weight of rain or snow.
That’s just one of many questions this experience raised for me. Despite being a tough night in freezing conditions I still had some comforts, including access to a toilet, running water, a kettle, warmth and, perhaps most importantly, good company. If I’d have been alone on the street it would have been so much harder. I can see how the practical side of sleeping rough probably gets a bit easier with experience, but the effect on mental health must also be corrosive as time goes by. I only did it for one night and always knew there was an end point at which I’d be going home.
I’ve never appreciated a bed and a roof over my head as much as I did on Saturday night, especially as the snow continued to fall outside. This weather has been sensationalised by the national media as a “snowpocalypse” with various superlatives thrown its way, prompting excoriating criticism from people perplexed that a whole country can grind to a halt in a few inches of snow. For many though, such conditions really can be dangerous, as evident in the deaths across Europe in the past week.
People can become homeless, which doesn’t necessarily mean living on the street, for any number of reasons. I could write a whole other blog post criticising a failed economic system for perpetuating the conditions that make it possible, but that’s for another time and it won’t address the urgent needs of hundreds of people outside right now. If you are able to then, please donate to your local homeless shelter or even volunteer and help make a difference.