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A hidden problem that shouldn’t be forgotten…

Homelessness is one of those issues that it is often easier for people to pretend doesn't exist than to admit that it does.

Lee Sherriff photo
Lee Sherriff

To many it is something that happens in London or Manchester, not Carlisle. However, it does exist, even here in our city. Last Friday night a group of us spent the night sleeping on the streets of the city centre to raise awareness of the issue.

Before arranging the sleep out, I approached Carlisle Key, a fantastic local charity working with homeless 16-25 year olds and asked them for advice on the way we should do the sleep-out and an offer to donate anything we raised to them.

It was a very thought-provoking and interesting experience, which provided a few surprises. When the weather was forecast to be freezing, people asked if we were going to cancel. Of course we weren't. If you are going to do something to raise awareness of homelessness, the coldest night of the year is a must.

We were lucky, we had warm beds and hot showers to return to once dawn broke and the city centre started to spring to life. We didn't have the worry or despair of knowing a long and empty day stretched out endlessly in front of us, never mind having to repeat the experience of being cold and lonely night after night. We went as far as we could to experiencing what it's like to spend a night sleeping rough without compromising safety or breaking the law.

To this avail, yes we were wrapped up in sleeping bags, and we were kindly allowed to use the toilet facilities in the local hotel (speaking to the manager he mentioned that some rough sleepers did wander in to get warm on occasion). In some ways we tailored our experience to the extreme by staying out in the open air and exposed to the elements, even while it was snowing, whereas if we had genuinely been homeless we would have done our best to stay hidden and sheltered, so would have been unlikely to position ourselves at the Town Hall Monument.

We settled ourselves down with cardboard beneath us (it makes such a difference!). Seven of us were there for the whole night, 9pm-7.30am, others for a few hours. A group our size produces a feeling of camaraderie. I knew that there was no way I could fall asleep that night, I felt too exposed and vulnerable.

We used Twitter as a way of publicising our project. We posted hourly tweets, photos and updates. We had a special 'hash tag' #CarlisleSleepout and we received pledges of donations from different areas of the country. We received great support from the Twitter-sphere, including a re-tweet by the writer Bonnie Greer to her almost 4000 followers.

At around midnight we spotted a figure walking through the snow flurries towards us with a sleeping bag under her arm. Hilary had heard me on Radio Cumbria earlier that day and come along to join us in a show of solidarity. The kindness of strangers certainly gives you a warm glow on a cold, snowy night.

On a quiet night in January there wasn't an awful lot of footfall streaming past. Earlier in the night we had a couple of people stopping to ask what we were doing. We had a few notes dropped in our collection box and we had queries from a couple of people coming home from the pub, slightly confused at the group of people huddled together in the city centre.

Any one of us could end up on the street, as a 'sofa-surfer' going from house to house, or in a hostel. It is all dependent on luck and circumstance. The aim of the sleep-out wasn't to single-handedly try to get everybody a bed or to pretend that I could say I knew exactly how it felt to be without a home of my own, it was to raise awareness, to make people realise that anybody could end up in this situation. Once in the cycle, it is hard to get out of it.

Councils are doing their best and Carlisle City Council is doing a sterling job, despite reduced resources due to the savage cuts to the budget and savings they are being forced to make. Times are hard. Austerity measures are hitting those at the poorer end of society much harder than those at the top. With food banks opening at the rate of three per week on average in this country and many people facing the prospect of redundancy often to find themselves 'underemployed' on a part-time, low-paid basis, income and outgoings are just not balancing for a lot of people.

Unfortunately, harsher measures are in the pipeline. The introduction of Bedroom Tax, the change to Universal Credit and the localisation of Council Tax Benefit in the coming months are all going to be hitting the same pockets which are already virtually empty in many cases. Labour MPs, councillors, council staff, benefits advisors, and many other professionals have voiced their concerns about these changes included in the welfare reforms. Many people who are working but on low wages will be hit as well. Families are teetering on the edge of staying afloat financially. Unfortunately, the likelihood of more and more people finding themselves in a position of being homeless is expected to increase as each change comes into force.

Homelessness is a matter of public responsibility, and social conscience. It is not something that will go away because we ignore what's often hiding in the shadows. This is why we spent a night in the cold in Carlisle City Centre in January, to force more people in Carlisle to think and talk about it . . . and it appears to have worked.

By Lee Sherriff
Published: January 24, 2013


Have your say

Put your money where your mouth is! The very same person voted against donations to the homeless at a recent council meeting, two faced?

Posted by Sarah on 4 April 2013 at 22:48

This doesn't sound like our local harraby concillor is being very productive.
Agreeing with Jim - we have no excess homelessness so why is she wasting her time and no doubt council tax payers money trying to highlight this issue? - Or is this a self publicising excercise

Posted by Elizabeth on 31 January 2013 at 12:39

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