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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

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Volunteers sleep rough in Carlisle to raise awareness of homelessness

It might not be as obvious as on the streets of bigger cities, but it’s a problem that still exists – a nightmare situation that no-one wants to find themselves in.

Lee Sherriff  photo
Lee Sherriff during the 'sleep rough' event

There are people homeless in Carlisle. There are some who, for whatever reason, feel they have to sleep rough or wrongly believe they have nowhere to turn to.

And this is the time of the year when the problems of those whose home is on the streets are potentially at their worst as they are forced to huddle, shelter and keep warm wherever they can.

Just how dire that is can be is difficult for many to get their head around. Many are ignorant to the so-called hidden homeless whose plight can be forgotten – out of ignorance more than anything.

That’s why a group of political activists decided to sleep rough in Carlisle city centre on Friday night. They wanted to better understand the conditions those involved face, as well as raise money for a charity which helps young people in dire need, with homelessness and other problems.

I joined them. Like the politicians, I wanted to get a better grip of the issues that see many people sleeping rough and find out why they end up feeling there’s nowhere to go and that they have no option but to suffer in the cold. It was, I admit, not something I was looking forward to – especially when flakes of snow began to fall as I left to meet the rest of the party.

Carlisle Key, a charity working with 16 to 15-year-olds was the charity that the Carlisle Sleepout supported.

Brian Leather, chairman of the charity’s trustees, said he thought it was important to raise awareness of the issue – especially of the plight of young people.

He added: “It’s a terribly cold night to do this but people do have to live outside in these conditions from time to time. It’s about raising awareness and raising money.”

Julie Crosbie, the charity’s project manager, said they were currently dealing with about 30 people who were classed as homeless – the figure included rough sleepers, ‘sofa surfers’ who move from the houses of friend to friend and hostel residents.

She said: “People often say there are no homeless in Carlisle, but it’s because they don’t see them. It is more obvious in bigger cities but it is becoming more obvious in Carlisle.”

Mrs Crosbie added that she had spoken to someone from a local chip shop who had offered homeless people food. She said: “They stand in her doorway to eat.”

She said that rough sleepers usually congregate in areas such as Rickerby Park, Eden Bridges and around the cathedral and added: “They hide because if they get spotted by the police they get moved on.”

Mrs Crosbie said that the voluntary sector would go the “extra mile” for vulnerable people and added: “We will support any young person in whatever is needed. The young people often get doors shut in their faces – they’ve not got the social skills and we are there to help them.”

The night was organised by Carlisle city councillor Lee Sherriff and Mrs Crosbie admitted she admired her and the team for deciding to brave the conditions.

Miss Sherriff said that the idea originally came to her when she heard how the homeless figures were compiled and added: “The figures were inaccurate.”

To compile official figures the number of homeless people is classed as those sleeping in the open – excluding those sleeping in doorways, or on friends’ sofas, or in hostels.

Miss Sherriff said that the situation would get worse once the forthcoming welfare changes, such as the bedroom tax, come into force.

“It’s in the forefront of our minds,” she added.

The would-be Labour MP, who will challenge Conservative John Stevenson for the Carlisle seat at the next general election, said people would be forced to move to other areas under the welfare changes and added: “Sometimes they are not able to find somewhere. If they’ve not got a job they can’t save for a deposit. Once they are in that cycle they find it hard to get out.”

Miss Sherriff said that they had chosen the city centre site for the event was because they wanted to be “quite exposed” to the elements and hopefully encourage people to join in. She said: “If we have homeless people who want to join in that would be fantastic.

“The reaction has been really positive. We’ve had pledges though Twitter – people wanting to send cheques and people wanting to pledge money. We’ve had lots and lots of good messages.

“I’ve never been so glad to see my bed. It was a thoroughly eye-opening experience. I’m so grateful not to be in that position normally.”

People who supported the event included writer Bonnie Greer as well as a number of Conservative Party members.

Once we had set up camp at the Cross we caught the attention of a police patrol – the first of many that night – and one officer said we had picked the worst night to be out in the open.

But, I guess, no night is a good one for those forced into the situation we voluntarily found ourselves.

However, although the general response was positive, one Twitter user said that the only people who slept rough in Carlisle were those who had been “kicked out of hostels for drug use and violence”.

We were also shown the type of kindness that perhaps those forcibly sleeping rough don’t find.

Early on a volunteer brought along Pot Noodles and other donations were brought throughout the night.

At about midnight Hilary Linton, of Heads Nook, near Brampton, brought chocolate and pillows. She said: “I’ve nearly lost everything a couple of times in my life and I thought I have to support the cause. I just thought it was something different.”

It was about then that the snow began to fall, in fine flakes which blew across the square.

However, there was a happy atmosphere within the volunteers as we all huddled together.

Regular police patrols were welcome saying we were the most interesting thing happening in Carlisle but adding: “We must be mad.”

The snow suddenly got heavier.

But I must admit we had a luxury those who live on the streets are not afforded – the facilities of the nearby Crown & Mitre Hotel, where the hand dryer gave a welcome warm-up.

It wasn’t an easy night. But, huddled together, it was one that was undoubtedly more comfortable than those living alone under bridges, in shop doorways or wherever they find themselves calling home for a few hours.

They were hours that were a brief insight into problems caused by homelessness – a reminder that it is a situation that cannot be ignored, no matter how hidden it appears.

As I left to enjoy the luxury of my warm home I would encourage anyone to buy a copy of the Big Issue to do their bit to help.

Have your say

Re article today (8th February) re Ms Sheriff voting against giving Churches Together money for homeless............

Is Ms Sheriff aware of the amount of work Churches Together did when Carlisle got flooded - and SAVED the council a LOT of money by doing a lot of their work for them!!!!!!

Churches Together are not there just for the Christian/Believer - they are there for EVERYONE - including Ms Sheriff.........

Posted by Local resident on 8 February 2013 at 18:19

Well well well.

Hasnt somebody shown their true colours?

Posted by Pete on 8 February 2013 at 16:38

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