Last night, Thursday the 1 March, the first day of spring, I slept a lot rougher than I normally do.
And I did so with over 200 other people similarly unaccustomed to sleeping outdoors in sub-zero temperatures.
LandAid’s first ever SleepOut, sponsored very kindly by Hammerson and Knight Frank, defied the worst that the ‘Beast from the East’ could throw at us (sheltered as we were under cover of Old Spitalfields Market in London’s East End) and was a huge success. Hundreds of property and construction professionals – surveyors, investors, developers, asset managers, builders, engineers, marketeers, and agents – left their beautiful City and West End offices and huddled together to raise money by ‘sleeping rough’ for the night.
But of course, we weren’t sleeping rough. We have jobs and homes. We were wrapped in hi-tech thermals and survival kit. We caught up with old friends, networked, and had a good time.
I woke up to the smell of concrete, damp and musty fellow-sleepers. Some were already awake and wandering around a little dazed. Others were still asleep.
I collared several sleepy-eyed individuals and asked them for their thoughts:
David Martin, Managing Director of 26 Letters PR, had found it hard to get to sleep, and once asleep, woke easily. “You hear every little noise – it was exhausting.”
Alex Harrington-Griffin, LandAid Ambassador and Director of TrustedLand, commented on the noise as well. “When you’re at home, you hear people on the streets, sirens going past and so on. But here, even though we were in a secure area, everything felt nearer, more threatening. If you were sleeping on the streets, how could you ever feel safe?”
Several young people who had been supported by City YMCA talked to the assembled ‘sleepers’ a little about their experiences, about how they had first become homeless, and how City YMCA staff had been there for them when at they needed it most. One of the young people though concluded that for him, one of the messages he wanted people to leave with, was how surprised he was that there were so many people, standing in front of him, who were wanting to do something like a SleepOut to help – “I didn’t know there were people out there like you”.
We said our “Goodbyes”, went off, had warm showers, hot breakfasts, tweeted about our experience, and went to work. We did something that to many will have seemed inexplicable, for one night, confident that the next day, normal service would be resumed.
But for more and more people, what we did is normal.
The numbers of people sleeping rough are at a 7-year high. And as most people appreciate, rough sleeping is only the tip of the homelessness iceberg.
Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are without the comfort or security of a decent place to call home. While we see so many sleeping out on the streets of our cities and towns, hundreds of thousands more are in poor quality temporary accommodation, whole families are in one room in expensive yet shabby BnBs, or sleeping on floors or sofas with no where to keep stuff safe, or to call their own.
And increasingly, it is affecting young people.
It is this specific aspect of the bigger homelessness crisis that LandAid is working to tackle. Working with well over one hundred property and construction companies, networks and associations, we’ve been raising funds for outstanding smaller to medium-sized charities, right around the UK, who share our determination to end youth homelessness.
In City YMCA London, we’ve found one such charity – and are proud to be doing everything we can to help them complete the total rebuilding of their former East London hostel. When it’s finished, LandAid House (as the new building will be called) will provide safe, secure and supported accommodation for 146 young homeless Londoners at any one time.
But for now, I’m lucky to be thawing out. And sitting here, writing this, I’m absolutely confident that every one of the 200 of us who slept out for LandAid on the first day of Spring 2018, or the thousands who take part in charity sleepouts every year, will be able to imagine and empathise just a little bit better with the brutal reality of rough sleeping.
And we know that we did something, together, to make a difference.