ROSE HORE discusses sleeping rough in Cambridge and invites you to experience it for yourself at Sleep Out tomorrow evening.
If you had to fit all your possessions into a single rucksack, what would you take with you? And what would you have to leave behind?
This is just one of the countless challenges of homelessness and being forced to sleep rough, a growing phenomenon over the past few years as cuts to services and housing provisions hit, and hit hard. In Cambridge last year, the number of people reported to be sleeping rough rose to 20, from 12 in 2011.
Other challenges are even greater than the luggage restriction: like how to source sufficient calories on a benefits budget of £7 a day to walking all night just to keep warm. Or the near impossibility, as one man who had experienced this told me, of dealing with it all whilst sober.
I had assumed that one of the toughest things to deal with would have been the hundreds upon hundreds of people averting their eyes and hurrying past. But in fact, the people who don’t stop are the blessing. It’s often those who do stop which cause the most trouble, those who tell homeless people to ‘get a fucking job’, or pick a fight with someone more vulnerable than themselves. In the six months following April 2012 there were 24 assaults on rough sleepers in Cambridge alone – a five-fold increase on the year before.
Unfortunately, handing someone a flat is no easy solution. After living within a community of sorts, there’s nothing scarier than the prospect of sitting alone in an unfurnished room, physically detached from past friends by the fact of your own four walls. Sometimes, people choose to return to the streets.
These are just some of the things I’ve picked up from working with Streetbite, and I’m sure there are many more stories like them, and worse. Streetbite is a student society made up of around 40 (wonderful) student volunteers who go out into the city centre and beyond twice a day to talk to homeless people and offer tea, coffee and sandwiches. We don’t pretend that a cup of tea will turn anyone’s life around – but the chat that accompanies it hopefully goes some way to breaking down the barrier between students and those way outside the bubble.
Other organisations can boast much more. There are fantastic charities working with homeless and vulnerable people in Cambridge, including Jimmy’s, Friends of Whitworth House, Cambridge Outreach and WinterComfort. In no uncertain terms, and especially in the cold weather, these charities can mean the difference between life and death.
An organisation I have seen first-hand is FLACK, which publishes a monthly magazine stuffed full of articles, photos, artwork and local listings. Unlike the Big Issue, it’s written entirely by people who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness. Its office is a single massive room rattling with creativity.
Even the most stubborn of visitors can’t help but pick up a pen or a paintbrush, or sit down at a computer after a few hours there – one of the things FLACK is proudest of. I met a man whose craft knife he used for sharpening pastels had been confiscated at the door of every hostel he’d been to. Just one reason why FLACK, for me, is different.
On Saturday night, Cambridge students and residents will be sleeping out for a night to raise money for all the charities mentioned in this article. Beforehand we will be holding a short discussion group about rough sleeping and homelessness with members of the FLACK team and people who have experienced both. This will be the fourth annual Sleepout, and we hope this year’s will be the most successful yet. If you’ve ever wondered what you can do to help homeless people in Cambridge, this would be as good a start as any.
If you would like to join Sleepout 2013, please email [email protected]