Simon on the Streets are a charity devoted to supporting people who are homeless and sleeping rough on the streets through intensive support programmes, street outreach work and weekly soup-runs. They reach out to vulnerable people who need help but may be excluded from or refuse other services for various reasons, and are then left unsupported. Every year they host an event called “Sleeping with Simon”, in which members from the Leeds community and beyond volunteer to spend one night sleeping rough on the street to raise money for the charity. On the 24th September this year, several members of Touchstone staff banded together and entered the “Sleeping with Simon” challenge. These are our stories…
Jennifer Mak – “I signed up because I wanted to show my support for people who work with those that we ignore… I wanted to raise my awareness and appreciate the basics of life.”
Jen made a timeline of her experiences of sleeping rough throughout the night:
“9-11pm – Find the place – it’s so dark! Fuelled by snacks and coffee. I plan to stay up as I hate not being able to sleep. Nowhere to sit, everything’s wet from rain. Thankfully not heavy rain but keeping everything covered for now. Doesn’t feel too cold so far, must be the coffee.
11-2am – Brain wired on coffee and chocolate but body aches from standing and starting to feel the cold. Just sit on the ground, last coffee before the coffee van goes and we’re locked in.
2-3am – Can’t stand up anymore, need to sit. Go to my patch, at least it’s fairly dry. No pillow so pad my hat up to give me a bit of lift. Tucked my money and phone inside my jacket but I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t feel somewhat safe out in the open.
3-3.30am – Need to pee. Really need to pee. Retrieve boots without getting wet and tripping over anyone, stumble to the loo and back.
4-7am – Too cold to turn onto a cold patch but body aches from lying on my left and being tense in the cold. What we going to do if it rains? Hide in a corner.
6-7am – Everything is wet – morning dew! So grateful it didn’t rain heavily and there was no wind. So grateful I have a hot shower, food and home to go to.”
Georgia Hornby – “To have a roof over your head, food and warmth is the most basic need and right of a person, isn’t it? However not everyone has this…why?”
“I haven’t personally experienced homelessness. I have some, but little insight into this often forgotten group of people in our society, so I thought I’ll help raise awareness (both for myself and others) and raise money for a good cause…so agreed to take part in the ‘sleep out’. I didn’t think the experience would be as eye opening, difficult and uncomfortable as it was! From this one brief brush with sleeping rough, my eyes were opened and my misconceptions were dispelled.
My thoughts of having a fun experience with some colleagues was promptly crushed. We arrived, chose our spot and before we knew it the heavens opened and we were getting wet. We rushed to set up our ‘pitch’, get our umbrellas out and get our sleeping bags ready but before we could… we were wet…and cold! Eye opener number 1!
Late into the night I was getting cold and tired and the flask of tea wasn’t helping, so I toddled off to my wet sleeping bag, however, what do I do with my shoes? How do I get in the sleeping bag without getting dirty and wet from sitting on the floor? (2 more eye openers). I couldn’t get warm all night, my face was freezing and so were my toes….another eye opener!
Unable to get comfortable, my back getting sore and my mind working overtime, I felt isolated, tired and frustrated, even my phone wasn’t keeping my mind occupied…if this is for one night only and I was rapidly feeling down from the cold and rain, what must it be like to not have your gadgets or your friends for company, and on top of that not having an end in sight; At least we have a 7am deadline to focus on, when it’d all be over…..
I think I managed 1 hours sleep over a period of 10 hours, but I was in a safe place; I didn’t have to worry about being attacked or my possessions being stolen; With a home to go back to (with a hot drink and a shower) so I’d no real reason to moan.
All in all, my brief insight into the world of homelessness made me really think about the difficulties homeless people face on a daily basis, not forgetting the impact of the other issues that tend to go hand in hand with homelessness, for example drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health difficulties. Homelessness is not fun or easy and is something that needs to be addressed, and I’m grateful that we at Touchstone support these people and try and make their lives a little better.”
Julia Kinch – “I had heard about Simon on the Streets whilst at University, and had wanted to take part in the sponsored sleep out for a few years… When Mark posted on Yammer about getting a Touchstone Team together for this year’s sleep out, I jumped at the opportunity to support such an amazing organisation.”
“When I was 13 I started volunteering at a Cold Weather Shelter in Islington, London. This experience really challenged some of the thoughts I had had previously about individuals who are homeless. Through the seven years I volunteered there, I made some great friends and met some truly inspiring people, who had battled through some of the most difficult things life can throw at you. When I moved to Leeds I continued to volunteer, with a shelter for young people in Harehills. These experiences taught me how important it is to support individuals who are experiencing homelessness, and how we are all only a few steps away from being there ourselves.
So, on a slightly drizzly, but by no means wet or cold evening, I packed up my sleeping bag, cardboard and tarpaulin and headed out to take part in this years ‘Sleep with Simon’. The experience itself was both challenging, interesting and heart warming. To begin with I hadn’t realised how much preparation would be needed for the sleep out, and even on the night realised I had been unaware of how many things needed to be thought about, including how to keep myself dry! Throughout the night there was a great atmosphere, and it was brilliant to see so many people coming together to support the work of Simon on the Streets. It was also really interesting to see some of the creative and thought provoking ideas people had come up with for the sleep out, including a group of individuals who slept with boxes over their heads with the words ‘I am not invisible’ on them.
It was really interesting to talk to the staff that work for Simon on the Streets, who told us some truly uplifting stories, of the difference that can be made to individuals’ lives when you take the time to work with them. They also posed some questions to all the sleepers, about whether you would sleep with your shoes on or off, and which bit of your body is it most important to keep dry. Needless to say, we mostly got the answers wrong, despite trying to think logically about the situation.
I have to admit that, despite my best efforts, I didn’t get much sleep. But I was left thinking how different and difficult it would be, were I really sleeping rough. Even the most simple things like how to keep your possessions safe, being able to find a spot to sleep where you could lie down completely and where would you could find a safe but quiet spot to get some sleep, became huge problems. When I left in the morning, bleary eyed and very sleepy, I felt that although I had in no way experienced what it was like to sleep rough, I had had the opportunity to really consider its reality for so many individuals both in Leeds and across the UK.
If you were to ask me the top two things I have taken from this experience they would be:
- Your feet get VERY cold when you sleep outside.
- When you take the time to build up trust and get to know people, you can support them to make the biggest changes in their lives. But you have to work with them, and you have to be willing to take as long as it takes.”
Mark Neesom – “The Rough Sleep was something that I felt very strongly about getting involved in. Having personally experienced what it is to rough sleep in a city, I think charities like Simon On The Streets are absolutely vital for society’s most vulnerable people who are routinely missed by services.”
“My original plan was to get cosied up in my sleeping bag and sleep right through ‘til morning. However, the reality was to be quite different. I was surprised that, even though we were in the protected environment of the Royal Armouries’ Tiltyard, with friends and colleagues all around me, it was still really hard to ignore that there were strangers everywhere in the dark. It made me think about the vulnerability of simply closing your eyes to sleep when you are not protected from the weather, the city and people who may wish ill of you.
I spent much of the night chatting to the Simon On The Streets workers and whoever was still awake out of our merry band, feeling more at ease for the company, before finally crawling into a soggy sleeping bag at 3am.
It was an honour and a privilege to sleep out with Team Touchstone for that one cold, damp night, to help Simon On the Streets as they continue to be there for the people for whom such nights are sadly a way of life.”
Emma Goldsack – “Having never lived in a city environment before I was struck by the number of people I had seen around Leeds living and sleeping rough on the streets. When given the opportunity to raise awareness of this issue and fund support given to this vulnerable group, I was excited to be a part of it!”
“When I volunteered for this part of me had thought that I would be okay sleeping under the stars for one night. I was absolutely and unequivocally wrong! As I was being dropped off my heart sank and I remember having this daunting feeling in the pit of my stomach that soon I would have to get out of the car, in the darkness, with strangers everywhere and no shelter, and sleep on the cold floor for the next 10 hours. I thought I wouldn’t be able to do this without having 5 other people in our group to talk to and support me through this, and most people who sleep rough on the street every day have nobody.
Our spirits were pretty high at the beginning of the night. We’d been greeted and introduced to the members of the Simon on the Streets team, who were incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, everyone had brought tea and snacks, and we saw an inspiring presentation about the work that Simon on the Streets have done and what they would accomplish in the future with the money raised by tonight’s event. Even though it had rained whilst we laid out our sleeping bags, the weather eased off and was relatively mild through the night. However, as the evening went on it grew colder and the atmosphere died down as more and more people went to bed.
I really didn’t want to go to bed; I was dreading curling up inside a sleeping bag on the floor and even trying to sleep. I managed to stay up until 4AM, when I began to feel physically sick with exhaustion (having woken up at 6AM the previous day) and the chill had gotten to me. After only one night, I could easily see how people might turn to anything they could to numb the feelings of cold, loneliness and depression that come with sleeping rough on the street, and that was without being exposed to the fear of any threats to my life (I knew I was with an organisation that were looking out for me, and they routinely checked on everyone to make sure they were safe!). I must have slept for about an hour and a half before I awoke – At this time the morning mist had rolled in and the cold had come up through the ground, and despite my ground sheet, sleeping bag and many, many layers I couldn’t stop shaking. To top this off the dew had settled on our faces in the night and I could feel it on my lungs where I’d been breathing this in. Needless to say I was pretty sick the next day, as you’d probably expect after sleeping rough all night, but we made it to 7AM!
The ‘Sleep with Simon’ has really educated me on some of the thoughts, feelings and problems that someone sleeping rough on the street might have to cope with. Sleeping rough is a psychologically and physically demanding experience, and we only saw a small part of that wider-world that hundreds of people go through every single day. I am relieved that there are charities like Simon on the Streets around who can act as an open-ended support network to people in this horrific situation and hope that their work may continue for a very long time.”
Altogether, we aimed to raise around £600 between our small team of six, and ended up with a final donation total of £1247 (207% of our target!). We couldn’t have done it without the support of our friends, family and colleagues and of course Simon on the Streets, who organised and ran the whole event. Although the ‘Sleep with Simon’ Touchstone team have now disbanded, we continue to assist people with homelessness and/or mental health issues through our everyday roles within the Touchstone organisation. For example, through our Touchstone Housing service we are able to assess anyone within Leeds with a housing issue and a mental health issue (diagnosed or undiagnosed), and work with that person to help them attain or retain their accommodation, which can include a six month temporary stay in our own supported accommodation scheme.
You can also visit the Simon on the Streets website if you would like to know more about the type of support they offer or how you could get involved with their work – www.simononthestreets.co.uk