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The World's Big Sleep Out

21 January 2020

A team from DWF recently took part in The World's Big Sleep Out to to help raise money for homeless and displaced people around the world. Joanne Frew recounts the challenges of an evening sleeping rough.

I had spent the week leading up to the World's Big Sleep Out avidly checking the weather forecast and had been relieved when the forecast changed from freezing temperatures to milder predictions. Although I wasn't sure what to expect, I would be accompanied by a number of members of my team as well as other colleagues within the firm and so I was confident we would help each other through the long night and a bit of rain wouldn't hurt us.

Our venue for the big sleep out was Morrison's carpark at Lime Square in Gorton. The DWF party was in a cheerful mood albeit there was an air of apprehension as to how the night would unfold. There was lots of discussion about whether it was better to keep shoes and boots on in our sleeping bags and indeed, when was the appropriate time to climb into our bags? It wasn't really like sleeping rough, as the organisers of the event had arranged entertainment for the first few hours and as we sat around, sipping our drinks whilst eating crisps and chocolates, it felt more like a Duke of Edinburgh expedition (in a really un-picturesque location!) or a corporate team building exercise.

As the temperature dropped and the skies darkened in a slightly ominous fashion, concern grew for those in the group who didn’t have waterproof covers for their sleeping bags.

And then the rain started

It became very apparent very quickly that the rain was going to be heavier than any of us expected and it was not going to stop until morning. At this point, the reality of sleeping on the streets hit very hard. When you camp out and the weather turns, you can go inside your tent to keep dry. If it is really bad, you might have a car with you that you can shelter in for a while. If it is really REALLY bad, you can always pack up and head home to your nice warm dry house. On the streets, you don't have that choice. The harsh reality for some people is that, without the luxury of a radiator, a tumble dryer or simply a dry place to shelter, once you are wet, you stay wet.

And then the wind picked up

The wind made everything a whole lot worse. Anything that wasn't anchored down started to blow away – the unfolded cardboard boxes that were being used as ground sheets, the carrier bags that had started out holding our belongings, hats, gloves - If you weren't wearing it or lying on it, the next gust might take it away. It also felt much colder than it actually was and everyone realised we needed to burrow into our sleeping bags to minimise our exposure to the elements and to maintain our body heat.

I don't think I had any more conversations with anyone after this point as we all moved into survival mode. I never realised that a night could be so long. My exhaustion meant that I did actually manage to doze for 5 or 10 minutes every few hours but every minute awake dragged on and on.

I had a lot of time to think through the small hours about what it must feel like to have to do this every night. I had the comfort of knowing there were security guards watching over me so the reason I pulled my rucksack into my sleeping bag was to keep it dry, not for fear of being robbed. I wasn't hungry or thirsty, I had high quality waterproof clothing, decent camping gear, warm fleece lined boots and thick socks, all of which was clean and dry when I started. I cannot imagine how it would feel to do this in the clothes I had been wearing the day before. And the day before. To have to climb into a sleeping bag that was damp from the night before. To have an empty feeling in my stomach as I had only had enough money from charitable passers-by to buy one sandwich that day.

Some of my thoughts throughout the night were; even lying on a foam mat, in a sleeping bag, inside a bivvy bag, the cold dampness of a concrete/tarmac floor permeates into your bones; it may be that a canvas sheet in the form of a tent or waterproof cover might make the difference between a simply uncomfortable night and getting pneumonia; a pair of thick warm socks might be the best thing you could give to a homeless person; and horrible as this experience was, we should all do it if it helps to raise awareness of just how grim life is on the streets and to raise enough money to help even one person escape this life.

I have never been happier to see my bed than when I got home the next morning and I vowed I was never going to do that again. But now, a week on as the memories fade, I find myself thinking that I may well do it again next year, and the year after, and to encourage others to do it too, if it means that we can make even a small dent in the numbers of people who have no choice but to sleep out and to help them get an opportunity to start again.

UN Mural

Here are some images of the one-off artwork that has been on display at The UN building in New York during February. The piece was commissioned by The World's Big Sleep Out in celebration and recognition of the incredible achievements of all of those who took part in December and helped to raise an incredible $10 million.