A rough night: Sleeping on the streets so others don’t have to


SWL reporter Ellie Pipe took part in YMCA’s Sleep Easy event


By Ellie Pipe

It was shouting that woke me from a shivery slumber at about 3am. A drink-fuelled rant along the lines of ‘get a job’ punctuated with a couple of expletives.

The irony was that the man being shouted at, who also has a day job, was working tirelessly through the night as a volunteer for Sleep Easy.

Relatively harmless drunken ramblings perhaps, but this incident really hammered home for me just how vulnerable you can feel sleeping on the streets.

This is what I was doing camped out in the middle of January in a church yard in Wimbledon, taking part in the 5th annual Sleep Easy event organised by the YMCA London South West (YMCA LSW).

The concept behind Sleep Easy is to ‘sleep rough so others don’t have to’.

The event, in which people sleep out in cardboard boxes for one night, ran simultaneously in Wimbledon and Kingston on Saturday January 25.

Similar sleep outs are organised by YMCA centres across the nation. This particular date was picked by YMCA LSW to coincide with Homelessness Sunday and Poverty and Homelessness Action week which runs from January 25 – February 2.

Chief Executive of the YMCA LSW, Richard James explained that the event works both to raise funds and also to raise awareness of issues surrounding homelessness.

He said: “Sleep Easy gives people a chance to sleep rough within a safe environment to get some understanding of what it’s like to be homeless.”

The money raised by the event will be split between the YMCA SWL, Faith in Action and Kingston Churches Action on Homelessness (KCAH).

It will go towards support for YMCA residents moving into permanent accommodation and to help the supported living scheme which places 16-25 year olds in with host families who give them a degree of stability and a roof over their heads.

Money will also help to sustain the winter night shelter scheme that has been operating from December – March for the last two years. The scheme involves local churches of different faiths that work on rotation and offer homeless people a place to go for the night. This scheme is accessed through the YMCA where hot food is also provided.

My initial discomfort at playing at homelessness for one novelty night was soon dispelled when I saw just how effectively it does highlight the stark reality of the challenges faced through having no roof over your head.

Rain turns from an everyday annoyance into an absolute disaster; many people said they wouldn’t have come if the afternoon’s heavy rain had continued. If you are homeless you don’t have the luxury of making that choice.

Where do you go to the toilet? How do you keep any possessions safe? How do you make a decent shelter with no sticky tape? Where will you get hot food and drink? And how, in the middle of January are you ever supposed to keep warm enough to survive the night?

Richard outlined for me some of the many reasons people find themselves homeless, the biggest factor being relationship breakdown and loss of jobs.

The YMCA works with people of all ages from many walks of life.

“Many people are just a couple of pay cheques away from being homeless,” said Richard.

The Sleep Easy night gives people an actual idea of ‘the personal mental journey you do when you are sleeping rough’.

After a brief introduction, our first task was to select our cardboard box (kindly donated by Access Storage) to build a shelter for the night.

I had two saving graces, the first being that thankfully the rain had stopped.

The second was that I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of a great group of people who between them had some solid shelter building skills. Without these I would have surely perished.

Most of us were there simply because it is a worthy cause, a unique event and a chance to raise some money. We had the 23rd Camberwell Scout Group amongst us who were responsible for introducing the little known ‘stick game’ to the evening’s entertainment.

Opening the event up to children as well as adults helps to act as a preventative measure to encourage young people to understand the realities of homelessness explained Mr James.

A few hot coffees and many biscuits in, I introduced myself to Michael Douglas, a one-time resident of the YMCA who now works there as a play worker and a volunteer night shift support worker.  

Michael explained that he ended up at the YMCA after constant moving from place to place and staying with friends.

In his work, Michael pushes younger people to be positive and to accept they are not alone in having problems.

“Why should I give up on you, no one gave up on me,” he tells them.

Michael is training through the YMCA to gain more qualifications but admits to feeling nervous and scared he will become homeless again.

Back in our church hall base, after a very welcome bowl of midnight soup, most people started drifting off to their cardboard beds. I was last into our 6-man shelter and still warm from the soup so all seemed to be going fine as I snuggled down in my sleeping bag.

Very quickly the cold started to creep up through my cardboard mattress, my multiple layers proved entirely inadequate and my summer sleeping bag may as well have been a cotton hanky for all the warmth it gave me.

Sarah, a YMCA worker sharing my shelter, quite literally gave me the coat off her back when she saw I was cold. This was just one example of the incredible generosity demonstrated by everyone at the event.

It was thanks to Sarah’s coat that I finally got a couple of hours sleep after my rude 3am awakening, albeit sleep punctuated with sirens, shouts and a constant  awareness that we were in fact just metres from the street.

We were woken by a member of the YMCA team just before 6 and trudged bleary eyed and achy to a hot breakfast at the centre.

There was little to be said at that time in the morning but the feeling was summed up as triumphant (that we survived the night), if achy.

Scout member Louis, 12, said: “It felt good to experience what other people experience every night.”

Money is still being collected but the total raised so far is over £9,000.

Wimbledon YMCA manager, Rebecca Stockman confirmed that the collection bucket total alone was over £100.

After breakfast we shuffled off to our respective homes where a normal bed had never looked so welcoming.

Donations can be made until 28th February. To donate, click: 

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