Saturday 9th December 2017 was a bit different to my usual kind of Saturday night.
I’d normally spend a weekend evening out catching up with friends over a meal, or at home with my family. But last Saturday, along with my GoodPractice colleagues Tracey, James, Ross and Andrew, I joined 8,000 people to sleep in Princes Street Gardens on one of the coldest nights of the year. Sleeping outside in December sounds unbelievable, but it is the harshest of realities for people with nowhere to call home.
We did this as part of Sleep in the Park, a mass sleepout event organised by Scottish-based social enterprise Social Bite.
Social Bite works on a number of projects, and 100% of their profit goes towards tackling social issues. One of their key priorities is helping homeless people. They are doing this in a number of ways:
– Running a chain of cafes and restaurants, employing over 100 people who have struggled with homelessness.
– Distributing free, fresh food to around 150 homeless people every day.
– Organising weekly ‘Social Suppers’ that provide vulnerable people with a hot meal, as well as an opportunity to share their stories.
– Launching the ‘Social Bite Village’ project, which aims to build low-cost, high-quality homes and provide tailored support for the homeless.
Sleep in the Park is their latest fundraising project, and one which GoodPractice were really keen to support. Now, as someone who has never camped in her life, who has never slept outside, and who is a major fan of home comforts, I did wonder what on earth I had signed up for. As the date of the event drew closer, the temperatures really started to plummet. On the night itself, the mercury dropped below -5C.
We began the evening in high spirits, meeting up in the office before heading out. As we entered the gardens, we were met by the beautiful sight of Edinburgh Castle lit up in green for the Social Bite event. We found a space to make our camp, and the five of us began to lay out our kit side by side.
I had loads of layers of clothing with me, including three pairs of socks, warm trousers and an enormous coat. Our CEO, Peter, had let me borrow his super-duper sleeping bag, roll mat and magic socks, which he takes hillwalking. So I felt well-prepared. People sleeping rough on the streets certainly don’t have this luxury – they have to make do with whatever they can find to make a bed, be it cardboard or flimsy blankets which do very little to keep out the freezing cold.
Lots of famous faces showed their support by performing and speaking at the event, so we made our way along to the Ross Bandstand in time to catch Liam Gallagher perform a stripped-back, busker-style set. Other performers included Amy MacDonald, Deacon Blue and Frightened Rabbit. They were joined by hosts such as Rob Brydon, Sir Chris Hoy and Bob Geldof.
We also heard from Social Bite co-founder Josh Littlejohn. His words really stuck in my mind as he said:
“There are 11,000 homeless households in Scotland. When I think about all of the amazing different people sleeping in this garden tonight, the one thing that strikes me about these statistics of homelessness is that they are not insurmountable.”
“Scotland is a small enough country, a compassionate enough country and a collaborative enough country, where nobody has to be homeless here. If we put our heads together, we can wipe out homelessness in five years. It is not a question of resource; it is simply a question of focus. And what the participants have all done tonight, by giving up their beds, is put a razor-sharp focus on the issue.”
After a bedtime story from none other than John Cleese, it was time to make our way back to our camp. I wasn’t sure if I would actually be able to sleep. The ground was completely frozen solid and people kept tramping past us on their way to their own patch. I wondered how on earth people sleeping in doorways and alleyways get any sleep at all, and how can they possibly endure this night after night. Apart from the cold itself, how must it feel to be out there vulnerable and alone?
I woke up at around 3.00am. Despite being surrounded by more than 8,000 other souls, it was strangely quiet in the gardens. The stars were out and the only noise I could hear was the sound of Saturday night party people making their way home along Princes Street. To my left was the sound of light snoring coming from I don’t know whom. My sleeping bag was completely covered in a layer of frost and I was really cold and stiff. I got up and went for a walk to try and get warm. I managed to get a cup of tea and then made my way back to where my colleagues were. The sight of them all lined up made me proud of what we were doing together.
As the event drew to a close we quietly packed up our things, left the gardens and went our separate ways. In all, we spent 11 hours outside that night. It’s given us a terrible glimpse of what it means to be homeless and is a night that neither I, nor my colleagues, will forget easily.
I am delighted to say that Sleep in the Park has raised more than £3.6 million. As a team, we’ve hit our fundraising target of £3,000, and the donations are still coming in. We’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported us. Our fundraising page will be open till Christmas Eve, so there’s still time to pledge your support for this amazing cause. You can find it here.
And next time you’re in Edinburgh (perhaps you’ll be coming to pay us a visit at GP Towers!), make some time to visit a Social Bite cafe or restaurant. By doing so, you’ll be doing your bit to help end homelessness in Scotland.