‘A dehumanising and humiliating experience’: My night sleeping on the street in the freezing cold
- Credit: Archant
The biggest mistake I made in preparation for my night sleeping on the street was thinking the cold temperature was the only thing I needed to prepare for.
I left the safe confines of my home at 9.30pm and met with the other nine volunteers taking part in the sleep-out. We quickly rolled out our cardboard and mats and squeezed ourselves into our sleeping bags.
The temperature at this point was cold but bearable, but that was only down to how much bedding and clothing we had brought with us - something a homeless person would not be able to realistically carry during waking hours.
Despite preparing as much as we could for one of the coldest weeks of the year, the temperature steadily dropped to -3C and the cold blast of air was impossible to avoid.
I could not cover my head within my sleeping bag without suffocating, and so I had no choice but to bear the painfully frosty air.
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It is something a lot of rough sleepers know all too well - that if you sleep outside during winter, there is little chance of finding warmth.
Sleep-out organiser Jo Rust said many rough sleepers are hidden away for that reason - behind shops, walls and even inside bins.
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'Even during the day, they are at the bookies, in libraries or at the laundrette to keep warm,' she added. 'They can't have a lie-in can they?'
And there is another reason for keeping out of sight - to protect yourself away from danger.
Although we had safety in numbers during the sleep-out, it was still unnerving to hear voices and footsteps nearing you in the middle of the night.
Irrational thoughts started darting through my mind. I worried about how exposed and isolated I was in the open, constantly looking over my shoulder for fear of getting robbed and attacked.
What came as even more of a surprise was how, of the 10 or so passers-by who walked past us, only two people had asked what we were doing.
'Homelessness is something people don't want to think about,' said student Bethany Anthony, 19, who took part in the sleep-out. 'They want to ignore it, pretend they can't see them. People walk past them like they are a piece of furniture.'
But the one single thing that I could never have been prepared for was sleeping on the cold, hard ground.
You lose the comfortable, sinking sensation that comes with sleeping in a bed. Instead you feel your weight crushing you against the ground, making it difficult for you to breathe - especially when you're wearing extra layers of clothes.
With mobility already restricted inside my sleeping bag, shifting between different positions made no difference, I was left in agonising pain and spent the last hour of the night sitting upright against a pillar.
Being completely deprived of sleep made me incredibly irritable, the hum of bright lights in the town were deafening and the noise of security alarms and cars made me wince.
As the sleep-out came to an end at 5.30am and the first shower of snow started to fall, I was physically and mentally drained.
Not only is rough sleeping uncomfortable and at times frightening, it is a dehumanising and humiliating experience.
Emilia Rust, 26, has taken part in a number of homeless sleep-outs and said it never got easier no matter how often she did it.
She volunteers at the night shelter - run by homeless charity the Purfleet Trust and Churches Together - where she said she has found a mixture of people using the temporary service.
'There's no stereotype of a homeless person,' she said. 'Anyone can be homeless.
'Sometimes the cause of homelessness is not even drink or drugs, but when you're sleeping on the streets you are going to want to numb yourself. 'It's hard to make the right decision when you're faced with difficult circumstances.'