Toiletries Amnesty’s Karen Harvey reflects on sleeping out for a night in London as part of a charity sleepout, to raise awareness and funds for homeless charities across the UK.
I parked my £150 car in the £5.70 carpark and got the £73 train to London.
Anna text me, ‘Are you all set?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I’ve got a scarf, an umbrella, a tarpaulin and a coat from the nineties!’
The day hadn’t started well. After dropping Adam at the airport and driving home, I realised I was locked out. Then I lost my train ticket. Then M&S wouldn’t sell me a sandwich because their card payment system was down.
I was having a bad day. But bad things come in threes, I thought – at least I wouldn’t die in my sleep.
All the time I was thinking; it could be worse.
I walked along the road, towards Lord’s Cricket Ground, my rather fancy rough-sleeping address for the night. This night had been planned for months and I’d been fundraising for several weeks, but I wasn’t really prepared. I thought I’d just go with the flow.
I started paying attention to the things around me. I’d be sleeping outside for the night, just one night, with the thought of a home to go to. What if that wasn’t the case? I lugged my tarpaulin and sleeping bag passed the couples, laughing with their Halloween fancy dress on, I looked in the window of the Indian restaurant, saw a family eating dinner together, warm spiced food, smiles, steam on the glass. All the windows with their yellow lights on, homely, net curtains and soft furnishings.
Further up the road, buildings with electric gates and eighty-grand cars parked outside. The light of the road island bollard strobed on and off intermittently. A pigeon lay dead in the gutter. Everything seemed poignant.
I arrived at Lord’s to a warm welcome and a cup of tea. I saw the Ashes, a glove that I thought was a bunch of sausages, and a blue cricket ball from the early days of women’s cricket (where they thought the girls would be scared of a red ball coming at them, so they made it almost invisible instead).
I signed a disclaimer form that said I might die or get maimed by other people in the night.
After introductions from some of the charities being supported we did the Haka. That’s not a typo, it’s fact of life.
Then it was time to find somewhere to sleep. I hadn’t realised we’d be sleeping in the stalls. I watched and waited for everyone else to find their spots. I found a space between two rows of seats, away from other people, down close to the pitch, and set up my bed nest.
Tarpaulin first, on the ground and then up the back of the seats in front of me, so as to stop any drafts (and then later, to stop the rain). My umbrella I propped on the ground, kind of over my head, wedged between seats, it helped keep the light off, and made me feel a bit more protected.
I put on my massive 1990’s Swedish army coat. I looked around at the North Face and Patagonia badges, patted my old £15 antiques shop bargain with fingers crossed.
I’d had to buy a sleeping bag (I’d given the one I had to Winter Comfort for the Homeless a couple of years ago). As I shuffled into it and tried to settled down I realised that I’d been tricked. Mountain Warehouse had let me down with their paper-thin waste of time sleeping bag. It did no good at all for keeping me warm. I wore a knitted jumper on my legs instead and wrapped the tarpaulin around me.
I was not prepared, and to be honest, I think that was actually pretty authentic.
It was too cold for my body to relax enough into sleeping. I am rubbish at sleeping in public places too. Can’t fall asleep on a train, can’t sleep on an overnight flight. At one point a scrunched myself up, face down, and managed 20 minutes of sleep. I was pleased, I hoped there was more to come. (There wasn’t).
It rained. Not hard, but enough. That misty rain that you don’t know about until it’s too late and it’s soaked you. I was glad for my umbrella and tarpaulin. It was cold. Some people left during the night. 3am Ubers.
In the morning we were lucky to be met at 6am with tea and bacon buns. An eight-hour night and I was feeling it – feeling the wear on my brain and body, feeling more compassion for those who have to endure this night after night.
I was aching, not just cold, chilled to the bones. I couldn’t grip my cup properly, I couldn’t hold a pen until gone 10am. I felt low, tired and drained. From just one night.
When you hear people saying that homeless people could do something to help themselves, know that it’s hard enough to survive, to just exist, let alone do anything else.
I got on the tube at rush hour. Tarpaulin and sleeping bag in hand. Tired eyes. I felt more pushed and shoved than ever. I felt tired and intolerant. The man behind me pushed himself hard against me, body invading my space. It took all my senses not to just throw my head back and head-butt him. Seriously. More people got on. My bag got pushed into the woman next to me. ‘You’ll be paying for my hernia operation!’she said to me, and I fake laughed, but I’m not sure it was a joke.
The London Lord’s sleepout raised a whopping £80,000. For some reason my JustGiving total got stuck at £666, but I’d prefer to focus on the amount with Gift Aid, £825. Thank you, to everyone who sponsored and supported.
It was an enlightening and difficult experience. I’ve already signed up for next year. I’ve got to do something, we all have.