In September, my four
daft brave colleagues and I signed up for an exciting new project led by Josh Littlejohn and the Social Bite team. At that time, the weather outside was a balmy fourteen degrees. We were excited at the prospect of pulling out our sleeping bags and spending the night in Princes Street Gardens, all to help eradicate homelessness in Scotland. It would be fun, we said, an excellent bonding experience.
What we failed to really think about, until the days leading up to the event, was what it truly means to sleep outside in the middle of winter. We naively discussed bringing matching onesies and what snacks we would share throughout the night. We delighted at our plans to decorate our area with fairy lights and make the experience fun, despite the serious situation of those we were trying to help.
As the weeks went on and the emails from Social Bite warned us of dropping temperatures and what we needed to bring to make it through safely, I will admit we had our moments of anxiety. However, we made a pact that no matter how difficult it was, we would stick it out and do our bit to be worthy of the generous donations our friends, family and colleagues had given.
Let me try to explain how it feels to sleep in the park in sub zero temperatures.
Before I left the house, I tried my best to pack as many things I could think of to make a difference; rugs, hot water bottles, gloves, hand warmers…. My sleeping bag would be fine up to minus 7, the very temperature it was set to hit that night. I had access to things to make my night bearable. Homeless people do not.
I trundled my wheeled suitcase to our fenced corporate sleeping area and neatly packed my belongs into an orange survival bag, designed to keep the ice out and my heat in. I left my belongings and joined my friends at a star studded gig headlined by Liam Gallagher and John Cleese. I had the option to leave my possessions safe and dry. Homeless people do not.
A few hours into the evening, I got so cold that I stupidly thought climbing into my sleeping bag would warm me up. It didn’t. I wrapped layer upon layer around me, clung to my Voltarol heat pack and burrowed down in my sleeping bag, knowing security were watching. I felt fairly secure. Homeless people do not.
As the cold took hold, my feet and hands began to burn. I took comfort in the fact it was 4.30am and I only had another hour to go. Two hours later I found relief in a hot shower which slowly got my body moving and blood rushing back to my frozen hands. I had the luxury of encountering the cold knowing very soon it would be over. Homeless people do not.
We did not experience what those who are less fortunate experience. We were able to bring expensive sleeping bags, have access to free hot drinks all night and warming stations should things get a bit too tough. Whilst there are so many people across Scotland trying their best to ensure those on the streets have somewhere to go, we heard tales of men and women who would rather sleep out than have to leave their faithful dog behind in order to get a place in a hostel. We heard a story of a man who has HIV and bowel cancer, who literally dragged himself through the city to attempt to feed himself. We saw a video of a young woman for whom sexual abuse was a frequent occurrence. We experienced a very different night from those who live it. That being said, all of us agreed it was one of the toughest things we had ever done.
We are lucky enough to return to our warm homes and baths and rugs and fires. The sleeping bags are back in the attic and dinner on the table as we recuperate from our sleep in the park. I can’t imagine sleeping outside ever again, let alone every night.
What Social Bite is doing is so, so important. No one deserves to not have a home; to be spat on and treated like an animal. We are a smart and forward thinking country and we truly believe that our small gesture, along with the other 8,000 or so people who took part, will go a long, long way to helping those who need it most.