Sleepout for Homeless Sunday by Kyra Trewby

20th January 2015 - by Fr Denis Carter

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In the early hours of Homeless Sunday on 18 January James and Kyra Trewby and a small Columban group joined the Bishop of Rochester to sleep outside on one of the coldest nights of the year to show solidarity with homeless people.

Homeless Sunday is an annual one-day campaign dedicated to raising awareness of homelessness and its causes.

When my husband – James Trewby, Columban Justice and Peace Education Worker – first asked me to do a sleep-out in Bromley for National Homeless Sunday, I can’t say I was swept off my feet.

It was January, temperatures were hitting the -1 mark and I was worried about getting ill from the cold. It was a busy time for me at work and I didn’t want to have to take any time off. But later that day, on my commute home, I walked past a young woman about my age, wrapped up in sleeping bags on the pavement and I heard a voice in my head saying, “Kyra- there is no ‘good time’ to sleep-out.” This opportunity was here now; I had an invitation, so why shouldn’t I consider it?

A few emails later, I was signed up for the event that was being organised by Housing Justice and Bromley Winter Night Shelter. I was going as part of a small group from the Columban exposure programme which aims to engage people in different social justice issues through experiential learning.
I must admit, I was a little wary about the experience. Would it change the way I saw the issue? Or would it simply churn out an empty kind of empathy where the morning after we’d smugly pick up our sleeping bags, have breakfast and catch the bus back home feeling all worthy and clued-up about homelessness?

Thankfully, Alison Gelder, Chief Executive of Housing Justice, cleared that up straight away. This was not an event aimed at imitating the experiences of a homeless person. It was one that began with some hard-hitting videos of real people talking about the realities of sleeping rough. And it raised some important questions about why access to the basic human rights of food, shelter, water and sanitation are denied to homeless people in the UK. And of course, street homelessness is only half the story. The charity Crisis estimates that 62% of single homeless people are ‘hidden homeless’ and never make the official stats. Tonight, we were just skimming the surface of this complex and difficult issue. The night was about being in solidarity with people affected by homelessness. But I still wasn’t sure that what that meant yet.

At about 11pm, a group of us started to scope out our ‘beds’ for the night within the grounds of Bromley Parish Church. Even in such a safe and enclosed space there was still so much to consider when deciding where to plonk down our cardboard; the rain, damp ground, noise, light, and even, it turned out, foxes. I started to have a small idea about how gruelling it would be having to work that out every single night.

After we’d made up our sleeping area and bedded down, it all became very still and I could see the swirls of breath coiling out of the sleeping bags around me. Sleeping on the floor I felt quite vulnerable with every noise making me start. It took me about half an hour before I started to drift in and out of sleep. During that time, I began to think about peace. The work of the Columbans is centred around justice, peace and integrity of creation, and in my very drowsy state, I began to see these big concepts in a much more practical and even physical way – what does it really mean to ‘sleep peacefully’ when others might not be?

In the early hours, the rain began and I headed into the church to sleep when it started to soak through my layers. Even after only spending 4 or 5 hours outside, I woke up with a strange grogginess that was a different kind of tiredness to the one you get after a bad night camping or an essay all-nighter. It was a tiredness that was a little more abrasive. Perhaps it was the cold, or the weariness that came from being on guard the whole time. And I wondered how someone who has this night after night is able to function at all during the day. It seems tragic that those who have to do so much to survive each day must have so little energy to do it with.

So I can’t write about what it feels like to lay your head on a pavement every night, or how it feels to have nowhere private to go to the toilet. But I can say that I learned an awful lot. Mainly about how much I don’t know. It was a quiet kind of learning; a brief but sobering education that gently shook my shoulders in a very practical and unassuming kind of way. It has left me with questions, questions about justice, human dignity, charity and statutory responsibility. And it has challenged me to play my small part in campaigning for change.

Links
BBC Coverage of the sleepout
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-30870145

Housing Justice
www.housingjustice.org.uk