Having been an avid supporter of Simon on the Streets homelessness charity for some time, I couldn’t say no when the team asked me to take part in their biggest fundraising event, their annual sleep-out held on my doorstep in Leeds.
Held Thursday 28th September at the Royal Armouries’ Tilt Yard, 100 other brave participants joined me, including my client and friends at Entrepreneurial Spark, Ian Emberton, Ross Barr and Richard Mitchie.
Preparing for the sleep-out, I invested in a foam mat, borrowed two sleeping bags and wore several layers of clothes, packing hats and extra socks, along with recruiting my team to create a banner and drum up some support to help sponsor us, bringing in vital funds for the West Yorkshire charity.
The novelty of sleeping under the stars for the first time in my life, alongside friends, and knowing we were supporting such a hardworking charity, initially gave me a buzz as I arrived for the event.
We found a spot and within minutes had set up for the night. Nervously leaving our belongings by our make-shift beds, we headed out of the arena to hear from charity manager, Gordon Laing who shared the saddening statistics on the rise of homelessness, as well as the limited lives rough sleepers have. Placing a lump in my throat, we bowed our head for a minute of silence as an empty sleeping bag replicated the homeless people who’d lost their lives over the past 12 months in our local area.
Clutching a paper cup filled with delicious piping hot soup (the exact same soup which is provided by Simon on the Streets’ weekly soup kitchen), my team, friends and I found a spot on the pavement for an hour of insight from motivational speaker, Richard McCann. Left in awe of Richard’s words, there was quickly time to visit the merchandise stall, purchase a branded beanie hat, thermos flask and I met and purchased a poetry book by ex-service user, Dawn, who’d come along to support the event.
Arriving back to my bed for the night at 10.30pm, I wondered why my bed was wet. It wasn’t just my bed, my bag and the banner my team had worked tirelessly on was so damp the faces glued down were peeling off. It was a mild September evening and wasn’t too late, so I was surprised by how much the dew had affected my belongings and home for the night.
Bedding down next to my friends was an opportunity to get to each other better. We discussed everything from the daft to the deep, taking in the views of the stars, tucking under my layers of sleeping bags as the temperature dropped. Debating whether I could hold my bladder for the night, instead of having to face the cold out of my sleeping bag, I reluctantly climbed out with my toothbrush, glasses and face wipe. A far cry from my usual routine of taking out my contact lenses, cleansing, toning and moisturising, but with a proper toilet block and warm running water, it was luxury compared to what the people on our streets have night after night.
With my neighbours asleep and snoring, I returned to my cocoon, tucked my hat further down my face and my scarf around my neck, snuggling up in my sleeping bag away from the cold. With the sounds of traffic and Leeds nightlife around me, I was very much aware of my surroundings until I eventually drifted off. I’d been less than two hours when the sound of someone walking across gravel startled me, waking me up. Even in the knowledge that we had security staff to keep an eye on us, my brain was alert to potential danger, which must be a hundred times scarier for true rough sleepers who do not have the luxury of security, instead face a lonely night with potential danger from passers-by.
Feeling increasingly uneasy, I drifted off with thoughts of the people who have no choice but to endure this night after night and I continued that way throughout most of the night. It was only when I awoke to the sound of Ross asking, “what do we do with Ellie?” I peeled my eye mask off and reached for my glasses, blinking to adjust to the immediate daylight which flooded my tired eyes, noticing that almost everyone had upped and left and it wasn’t even 7am!
Feeling exhausted and aching after a night on the cold, hard floor, I headed to the coffee van for my morning dose of caffeine, another luxury unlikely to be as easily accessible to the true homeless.
It was a quick dart to the loo and then back to pack up my belongings as the first drops of rain started to land on my bed. We were lucky really, given the amount of rain we tend to endure in the north of England!
I headed back to my car and drove straight to my flat, where I decided to try and get a real sleep for a few hours but it was only when I got into my real bed, that I realised just how cold I really was. Despite being so tired from a night of endless broken sleep, my feet were so cold I couldn’t drift off until I wrapped them up in warm, fluffy socks. Once I got to sleep, I endured vivid dreams before scraping myself out of my state of slumber, climbing into a hot shower and dressing in freshly cleaned clothes, another daily task we take for granted which would be luxury for those less fortunate than ourselves.
As I headed into the office for the day, I couldn’t believe how tired I still was. Armed with a sense of pride of having done something good, my thoughts turned to treating myself to my favourite meal that evening. I stopped on my way to chat to my homeless friend Lee and give his dog, Lady, a good stroke and scratch while telling him about the sleep-out I’d done. I spent a little longer than usual chatting to him, understanding the loneliness rough sleepers face. And given my recent thoughts, I asked what his favourite meal was. He advised he loved spaghetti bolognese and couldn’t remember the last time he’d had fish and chips. Given it was Friday, and my experience was just a short snapshot into his life on the streets, I asked if he’d be in his regular spot at tea time. When he replied yes, I told him we’d enjoy a fish and chippy tea. His eyes lit up as he asked if I could get a sausage for Lady too. Being a true animal lover, of course I agreed. Meeting him at 5.30, armed with a fish butty, chips and the sausage for his companion, Lee didn’t need to tell me how much that meant to him. He inspired me to make spaghetti bolognese the next day too, and I took him a portion in a takeaway container, complete with garlic bread.
While I appreciate not everyone lives as close to provide a warm home-cooked meal as I can, chatting to these people in our community, getting to know them and extending kindness in something as small as a fish and chippy tea, clearly meant the world to Lee, and I hope more people extend such small but impactful acts of kindness too.
I will continue to support Lee, Lady and Simon on the Streets in their efforts to help a very visible problem across our county. A huge thank you to the amazing supporters who helped us raise more than £1000 for the charity. It wasn’t the easiest fundraising task I have ever completed, but it was certainly worth it.
To learn more about Simon on the Streets, visit simononthestreets.co.uk.