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by Jodi Gothold, posted 12 December 2017

photo features Jodi (centre) with David, Tom, Justine and Kate

When the opportunity came up to do our own Sleep Out, I thought: I am definitely up for it. We'll raise awareness, raise some money and have some fun with my lovely colleagues.

We all had different worries I guess...cold, uncomfortable, very little sleep, where to pee?

I'll set the scene...

Glass Door Homeless Charity for whom we have raised over £3,000, arranged for us to sleep in the fairly secure, secluded grounds behind St. Luke's Church in Chelsea. The organisation works with several churches in the West London area to offer homeless people hot meals, shelter and advice to get their lives back on track. Their shelters are open between November and March and are completely funded by voluntary support. They also help anyone, no matter what their situation or where they come from. Of course there are limits to the numbers they can shelter, but they do try to signpost people and at least give them a hot meal... Amazing right?

A transformation begins

At about 9.30pm on 9 December 2017, I stepped off the tube at South Kensington and looked for a Tesco to buy some snacks. I was wearing a ridiculously large and unflattering down feather coat, my chunky snow boots and the warmest hat from my husband's collection, also not so attractive. I was pulling around a large bag packed with groundsheets, a pillow, a roll-up mattress and extra clothes. I also had a large backpack that awkwardly knocked into people whenever I turned around. As I left the Tesco I watched well-dressed people enjoying their Saturday night in trendy and expensive bars and restaurants.

I realised my very different 'bag lady' look resulted in me being looked at with pity and disdain, or I was totally looked through. I would normally be heading into one of those places myself dressed to the nines! I have to admit, if I saw a girl wrapped in layers and pulling bags I wouldn't have given her too much thought.... But right then I felt like an outsider who would never belong; I felt invisible and lonely and could also have easily been very hungry and desperate.

When we got to the church grounds, our home for the night...we met Melissa from the charity who gave us access to the vestry of the church and a loo and kitchen if we needed anything - which was unexpected - at least that was the toilet issue taken care of. In fact, she encouraged us to sleep indoors and of course that felt like cheating, but she said the people the organisation looks after spend the night on the hard floor of a church hall so it would not be unrealistic. However, we were intent on sleeping outside and only going in for the loo.

For a little while we spoke to Melissa about homelessness and housing issues and what individuals go through. These are some of the reasons people find themselves homeless:

  • abuse in many different forms
  • death of parents or carers
  • addiction of different kinds
  • bankruptcy
  • increase in rent - one of the biggest reasons currently
  • lack of affordable housing

We learnt that some people have jobs but not enough money to afford somewhere to live. They wash in gyms and restaurant toilets and try to keep up appearances and feel as normal as possible… In some cases you would never know someone does not have a home.

Suddenly one night being a little cold and uncomfortable didn't really feel like the real deal...

  • We were prepared
  • We had layers
  • We had thermals
  • We had food
  • We had card games
  • We had a few drinks
  • We had our room to escape to
  • We had each other
  • We have a home

Melissa left us after an eye opening discussion and a warning that many homeless people find themselves in hospital with hypothermia or freeze to death on cold nights AND this only if they don't have their belongings stolen or are possibly beaten or harassed.

Setting up camp

I won't lie, once we set up camp next to the doors of the vestry with motion sensor light and all, we got out our drinks and snacks and actually had a really fun time for a few hours. We had a surprise visit from our lovely colleague Dani, and fellow “sleep-outer” Justine's boyfriend Juan the Spaniard. They brought even more snacks and much needed hot chocolate. So far, it felt more like a relaxing garden party than a sleepout!

A couple of hours later a few of us went for a walk around the church to fend off the cold, and on the other side of the church, huddled on the steps of the grand main entrance under shelter were a couple of homeless men fast asleep. The rest of the walk was pretty quiet, and when we got back to the rest of the group we contemplated how we had a warm room they could have been in right then and there! But we couldn't wake them and didn't really know what to do which was pretty frustrating.

We then decided it was bedtime. We locked our valuables and shoes inside and got zipped into our sleeping bags outside the church vestry. Next thing a policeman appeared. He said there was a report of someone breaking into a tomb! A bit funny, also quite frightening (not the tomb part but the break-in part - we were in the grounds of a church surrounded by a wall of gravestones to be fair!) We said we were from a charity and doing this to raise money. It felt a bit trivial really, and I feel like he left us a bit bemused. Or maybe that's what I was feeling....

Again I thought, how could I possibly know what being homeless was really like? I imagined the cop harassing us in real life and forcing us to leave our chosen 'comfy spot' and felt a little scared all over again.

Once settled, quiet and staring at the night sky I thought, with the icy air on my face, imagine if this was real, imagine if I was all alone, imagine if my sleeping bag and shoes were stolen or I was approached by a violent group of people and attacked with no one nearby to help. I genuinely felt vulnerable and the fear and loneliness were pretty real!

Snow and rain

It started to rain and then snow. It made no sense to get soaking wet. We were under no actual shelter at all outside the vestry door. And then, and only then did we realise homeless people would not actually choose to lie down directly under the sky - surely we should have clocked that when we set up camp! They would obviously find a doorway or somewhere with overhead protection of sorts. We didn't have a choice, there was nowhere else to go. We had an inside option, and finally we relented.

This is when I truly felt it was a hard night.... It felt like giving up of course and it wasn't like, 'phew we can sleep inside'. It was the realisation we could go inside when others couldn't, that really struck us. And they were literally the other side of the building. We slept on a hard wooden floor. Not great but we did manage to get a few hours sleep. And then we could go home!

As we left around 8.15am, a group bonded by experience, humbled by the night before and really, really proud of our family and friends for helping us raise over £3,000, it started snowing again. I knew I would get home to very excited kids, a warm shower, a day of hot chocolate and snowball fights and building snowmen.

I would go home to a day of love and family and blessings. Many others don't have that home or that life at all.

Leading up to the night, my friends were worried about me getting super cold … and rightly so. I also wondered what I was really getting out of this experience? The biggest surprise was not the cold, but the feeling of vulnerability, fear and hopelessness.

So think about your support system, your family and friends and your safety and security and please do bear in mind how lucky you are...

Apparently our £3,000 will give around 125 people one night in a safe and warm accommodation with food.

Making a difference

Help us raise even more than this. Share our story. And next time you see someone sitting on the street, smile, make eye contact, say hello, get them a meal; they are just as human as you and me and even just a greeting will make them feel just as it would make you feel: included and not so alone.

Thank you for reading this. Thank you St Luke's Church for hosting us and Glass Door for the opportunity.

You can still sponsor any amount on our fundraising page. My friend David Wheaton set the page up for us all.

Sponsor us now