20 November 2023
Writing: Mr Paul Serkis, Chair of Governors
Raising money for charities to help the homeless
When you wander the streets and you see the hopelessness that surrounds us, no one should suffer being in such a dire position. The statistics are staggering. In the North East alone, some 20,000 people are homeless. That’s just in the North East. Across England, the estimate is at least 271,000 (of which 123,000 are children)* (*Source: Shelter January 2023). This is horrific.
I recently volunteered to do a charity sleepout for one night to raise much-needed funds and awareness for the plight of many people who are homeless, through no fault of their own.
The event is called CEO Sleepout and the charity runs many of these events across the country using various sites. It brings together like-minded people and charities and allows those attending to hear first-hand accounts from those who have and continue to struggle with day-to-day existence. There are good news stories too where charities have been able to help people. Listening to individuals tell their harrowing experiences and how they eventually broke the cycle of living on the streets with help from charities is uplifting, and I’ll not lie, a tear-jerker. We take for granted the basics of a roof over our heads, a comfy bed, a hot meal, and somewhere to call home. For many, each day is a genuine struggle, their mental health and wellbeing challenged 24/7 not knowing if this is their last day on earth.
So having signed up to do my sleep out, of course, it being the week of storm Ciaran, it made it all the more real, challenging, and pretty miserable.
I set off with my rucksack, sleeping bag, woolly hat, coat, and book and headed for Kings Cross station to board a train northbound to Newcastle. I arranged to meet two other work colleagues joining me who had a quick pasta and beer to load up the carbs and then eventually arrived in Sunderland at about 19.30.
We were greeted by the event organisers at Sunderland’s football ground the Stadium of Light. Around 50 volunteers had signed up to take part. It was great to hear why people had volunteered and we shared thoughts and discussed what the night ahead would look like. Driving rain, gusty winds, and generally not the starry night sky that would have been preferable.
With a warm cup of tea in hand, we listened to the organisers talk about what they do and how they help to support charities working with the homeless. It’s good to know that the money raised for such charities really makes a direct impact on people's lives.
We heard real life accounts from those who had been on the streets for years, this really opened the tear ducts. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room when one person re-counted how twice he tried to take his own life but some ‘greater good’ was watching out for him and managed to get help. This from a man who served his country for 10 years in the British Army, several tours of duty including Afghanistan, and on return to civvy street very quickly could not cope.
He recounted his thoughts whilst living on the streets and remembers feeling ashamed of himself, he’d let his family down and had no value or worth anymore. He became addicted to drinking and that was his way of coping. He was attacked on the streets regularly whilst trying to sleep and recalls on one occasion, some youths tried to set fire to him. Eventually, he got help and after several years this same person was standing in front of us, and now helping others. Quite humbling really.
No one deserves or chooses to be on the streets. Circumstances and perhaps home life for some can be very hard to cope with and sometimes, the only option is to escape. Safe spaces must be made available to help those most vulnerable and the first step is making people aware of the issues.
At the end of the formal speeches, we headed out and started to prepare a place to sleep in the open terraces. I’ll not lie, it was driving rain, gusty winds, and quite frankly miserable. However, spending one night out is a mere inconvenience in the knowledge that the next night I would be back safe and sound in my bed. For many, this is not the case.
We stood chatting with other volunteers and organisers and again heard more stories. One was from a former Royal Engineer who previously served in the RAF maintaining helicopters. She was an amazing woman and for several years had completed overseas tours and again witnessed horrendous incidents. Having been retired early from the Air Force she suffers from PTSD. Each night, she barely sleeps with ‘flashbacks’ keeping her awake. She had nowhere to go but got help and managed to start to rebuild her life. She now works for the Walking With The Wounded charity and helps other veterans who suffer in different ways. What an amazing woman.
Time was marching on and at 23.00, we started to bed down. Trying to sleep with driving rain, wind, and the general cold is a challenge. You try and close down every little gap to prevent the wind and rain from getting in. Sleep deprivation is a key factor for those sleeping on the streets. Your body never really has time to recover in the same way you get from sleeping in a warm cosy environment. I drifted off a few times only to be woken by rain, wind, and general nighttime noise. You then start to check your watch and realise it’s only midnight. Then your mind starts to wander and you think of how traumatic this must be for people living on the streets permanently and what you can do to help.
We are told that it’s little acts of kindness that make a huge difference. A hug, a warm drink, some food, saying hello, sitting with someone, and listening to them make them feel wanted. We should not be afraid or walk past these people. They are human and what they need is some love and kindness.
The rain eventually subsided at 03.06 (see what I mean about not really sleeping properly!!!). Over the next few hours, it was more of the same, a bit of sleep, more thoughts and then sleep again.
By 06.00, most people were awake, starting to chat and it was time to pack your belongings (which did not take long!!!). We moved inside for a warm drink and breakfast roll which was very welcome. Morale was great and actually, all said and done was well worth doing, especially when you know why you have done the challenge and for the change that you can hopefully make to someone who needs help.
Having said our goodbyes, I headed back to Newcastle Station and boarded my train back to London.
As I sit here, typing my notes on the event I can only hope and pray that doing this will benefit someone who is in such a difficult position. Making as many people aware of the homeless issue is one step in the right direction. Raising much-needed funds for charities is another way that we can all help. Giving up some time for others costs nothing. My hope is that the real issue of homelessness is to prevent it from happening in the first place. I don’t have the answers for all this, but I do know that good will always prevail no matter how large or small the gesture is.
Thank you for taking the time to read this message. If you can, please visit my Just Giving page and donate whatever you can.Just Giving