Saturday 7th December marked the Evening Standard and Crisis’ ‘The Big Sleepout’ in Trafalgar Square. Sufficiently inspired as we were to make a contribution to the cause, The Anderson family decided to stage its own mini-sleepout; and so we took to the ‘mean streets’ of Earlsfield for the night – or rather, we sat outside our house for a paltry few hours.
Everyone will have their own thoughts on the cause, effects and the plight of homelessness, and indeed, my wife has set out some of her thinking on her Just Giving page (https://www.justgiving.com/Josephine-Anderson?utm_source=Sharethis&utm_medium=fundraisingpage&utm_content=Josephine-Anderson&utm_campaign=pfp-email&utm_term=DmqZRx7Ka.). The Evening Standard’s coverage is also excellent, and well worth reading (https://www.standard.co.uk/homeless-fund/the-homeless-fund-join-big-sleepout-in-trafalgar-square-to-help-our-fight-for-homeless-a4293651.html). With others better placed than me to make the case for raising awareness, I’ll share what it felt like, if only for a few hours, to spend a night outdoors.
It is important to say that however hard we tried to make the experience real, it was of course, contrived. Neighbours and friends popping by to wish us well, giving us hot drinks, and demonstrating basic human kindness – smiling, saying hello, acknowledging us – is a long way from reality. Equally, we were well fed, dressed in appropriate clothing, and only a latch-key from facilities we all take for granted – a toilet, running water, food and drink. But there were still moments that made us think.
For a start there was no sense of beginning; no feeling of the clock starting, leaving one experience and starting another, of essentially becoming homeless. We popped up our tent, sat in our deck-chairs, and waited. We had opened our front door and gone outside. There was no need for anyone else to acknowledge what we were doing, or had temporarily become. We were the same people – it was only our living conditions that had changed. There was a somewhat surreal sense that absolutely nothing, but everything had changed.
This was compounded by the look of bemusement from passing motorists and pedestrians. I felt we had cheated by having a fire pit (which kept us warm and provided an unfair advantage on ‘Fred Bloggs’ who sleeps outside Earlsfield station), but it did make us conspicuous. We deliberately did not have a sign explaining what we were doing, so to all intense and purposes – to strangers at least – we had simply set up home on a suburban street in South West London.
Perhaps the biggest issue – at least after the well-wishers had departed (which included Glyn Goodwin, Green Party candidate for Tooting – thank you, Glyn) was the boredom. Sitting around for hours, with no iPhone, iPad or social media to lighten the load, we quickly realised that having no mental stimulation was going to be our own biggest challenge. Whilst food, drink and shelter are essential, and perhaps what we instinctively think of when passing someone in the street, we also quickly realised the value of an old paper-back or a free newspaper – and the currency of a conversation with a passing well-wisher.
When it came to trying to sleep, we inevitably became more attuned to the natural, but also made, elements around us. We were very lucky that it wasn’t cold or wet (at least not initially), but it was incredibly windy, and it was touch and go as to whether our tent was going to end up in our neighbours’ front garden – with us still in it. The streetlights that we take for granted kept us bathed in unwanted bright lustre, and every car door, goodnight greeting, and revved engine was a further excuse to stay awake. Moreover, whilst our tent kept us dry, it provided no protection should someone with less generous intentions have chosen to impose themselves upon us.
Finally, what started off as a family effort quickly become a husband and wife event. The kids lasted until about 10pm before sidling off to their bedrooms, and even the dog got bored around 1.00am. In their own sheltered, myopic way it was perhaps understandable why the kids asked us ‘why are you doing this? – it’s the wrong time of year to be camping’. But they are not the only ones who take their living conditions and family environment for granted. It certainly made the experience a good deal easier having the companionship of Mrs A by my side, and although I told her not to, I was very grateful when she brought me a cup of tea in the morning. Many homeless people are of course on their own. The loneliness must at times be stifling.
To conclude, whilst one night out doors does not give me the moral right to comment on homelessness, it has given me some time to think about its practical implications. How do you go to the toilet with any kind of dignity? Clean your teeth? Keep dry, and dry out wet clothes? Acquire and store bedding? Store winter clothes in the summer, and acquire winter clothes in the first place? Stay physically and mentally active? Have some form of positive human interaction? And perhaps most pertinently to me, maintain the will-power to get out of whatever constitutes a bed every morning and decide to keep on surviving – to keep on living?
If you would like to make a donation to Shelter via Jo Anderson’s Just Giving page, please follow the link above.