Sometimes, it takes spending a whole night outdoors to empathise with the ones without roofs over their heads
Having recently moved to London, the biggest culture shock for me so far has been the absurd number of homeless people who daily line the footpaths of both Central and Greater London. When thinking of a developed city, the visualisation is often one of glamour and perfection, however, what the camera lens frequently fails to show is the suffering that goes along in the city besides its colourful Christmas lights that deck every street corner during December.
Men and women sit outdoors all day on the footpaths, sometimes on just a cardboard box to separate themselves from the cold pavement below, while holding up a sign explaining their situation, begging for change in order to support themselves.
Having been a little shaken by this discovery, when I found out about the World’s Big Sleepout, I instantly knew that I had to take part in it.
The World’s Big Sleepout took place in the Trafalgar Square in London. It’s an annual event that takes place globally, working with partners such as the Malala Fund, the UNICEF and The Institute for Global Homelessness to raise funds and awareness for those, who for one reason or the other, do not have roofs over their heads. At times these also include refugees.
Josh Littlejohn, the man behind the World’s Big Sleepout, initially started out with a sandwich shop, called Little Bite in Scotland, which would focus on giving jobs to people struggling with homelessness. This has now grown into an annual event that takes place internationally in 52 cities around the world including, London, New York, Chicago, New Delhi, Newcastle, Dublin, Belfast, Madrid, Barcelona, Brussels, Cardiff and Santiago.
On the night of the sleepout, the whole courtyard in front of the national portrait gallery had been cornered off for the event. At the entrance, we were handed life-size plastic orange bags which were essentially our ‘survival bags’ to cover our sleeping bags with, in case of rain.
A stage set opposite to the National Portrait Gallery and the fountains, had speakers coming in to talk and educate the crowd about the issue for the first few hours of the event. People from all walks of life seemed to be there willing to take part in this event, including some very elderly ladies. By the time the night arrived, Trafalgar Square was covered in sleeping bags, many people huddled around in groups excitedly talking about what they expected from the night ahead.
“The family system in Western countries is not as strong as that found in Pakistan. So often when someone is in trouble there’s no one to help them. Here the community is not as strong, and on top of that the government abandons these people too.”
“I think this is a really good way to draw awareness to the issue of homelessness and it’s a great way to understand what these people go through on a day to day basis. I’m sure people don’t really understand how horrible it is to sleep on the streets” says James Dimonaco who attended the event.
The group that I went with, were all people who had actually never met beforehand. We had all found out about the event on a Facebook group which promoted the idea of “seeking discomfort” in life by actively taking part in spontaneous things. We decided to go together as none of our friends was willing to do anything ‘crazy’ like this.
Snuggled in our sleeping bags, of top on thin foam mattresses, inside the ‘survival bags’ the night was just bearable, but that was of course because we had come prepared for how cold it would be and had adorned ourselves with every possible winter clothing item to be found. Around 1am, it started to rain quite hard, which then continued for the rest of the night. Holding umbrellas tightly over our heads we tried to get a wink of sleep, but keeping our stuff dry was a true challenge.
Halfway through the night, some of us took refuge in the warm tents, whereas there were some who decided to get back out in open and the pouring rain.
While later talking to Amel, a French travel blogger who goes on Instagram by the username @itsamel_official, I asked her why she thought the homeless situation existed so vastly in London.
“It’s even worse in Paris,” she told me. Having lived some time in Pakistan she was able to offer an interesting insight on the situation knowing both cultures well.
“The family system in these countries is not as strong as that found in Pakistan. So often when someone is in trouble there’s no one to help them. Here the community is not as strong as those in the Eastern countries, and on top of that the government abandons these people too.”
There was some scepticism about the authenticity of the event as there was a concert beforehand, and privileges like a portable toilet and shelter serving free hot chocolate were available for everyone, but overall the experience was a humbling one.
I suppose it takes something like spending a whole night outdoors in the rain to empathise with what homeless people must go through on a daily basis.
The writer is a student of Journalism at Kingston University