Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head: Doorway SleepOut 2023

“I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining”

On the night of Saturday March 25th, the latest (10th) Sponsored Doorway SleepOut took place, this year in John Coles Park (by very kind permission of Chippenham Town Council).

The SleepOuts are major events for Doorway, for raising awareness of homelessness and of the Doorway organisation, but they are also a major part of our income stream – we are after all a small, independent local charity, with no central or council funding. Because of this, and despite the large amount of work involved in making it happen, the decision was made to change the frequency of the SleepOuts from biennial to annual. Also this year, the chosen date was later in the year than previously, in an attempt to have kinder weather. Well, that really worked well…….

Doorway’s CEO, Jo Kitching, said at last year’s event:
“The thing about rural homelessness is that you can’t always see it. People end up sleeping in their vans, their cars, and fields and woodlands, so it’s not always apparent… Homelessness isn’t only about sleeping rough, it’s also about people who just don’t have their own front doors, sleeping on sofas, sharing bedrooms, sleeping on landings or sitting room floors… ”

“We need also to change attitudes sometimes. It’s quite easy to dismiss someone who finds themselves in difficulties, on the streets, or not able to keep their own tenancy, but it can happen really easily, it could happen to anybody in this room. It can happen for all sorts of reasons, it could be loss of job, addiction to gambling or drugs or alcohol, it can be breakdown of relationships or it can be because of mental health problems. It could also be completely from no fault at all, being evicted from a private tenancy for no good reason.”

“So Doorway is here to pick up the pieces and to get people back on the right path, and to show non-judgmental support. We provide great food, hot showers, laundry, a football project and loads of other things, as well as signposting and referrals. We do it without preaching and without judgment.”

Last year’s SleepOut was held at the Bath Road car park. This was very good for being close to Doorway’s own facilities, but not so good in terms of noise and interlopers, particularly at three in the morning. Eventually, John Coles Park was agreed. When the day came 66 sleepers had been registered, but rain as the day progressed, and much more predicted overnight, meant that 31 brave souls actually turned up. And all credit to each and every one of them for that. And that rain certainly arrived in time for the opening up of the venue.

After registration, food was available courtesy of ‘Nourishers’ of ‘Cousin Norman’s’, and then there was great music from ‘Rock Choir’ then ‘Junction 17’ before Doorway guest and ex-rough sleeper Brian said some very relevant words and read out a poem he had written. Around this, Kelly Morgan from BBC Radio Wiltshire, who was to be sleeping out as well, charmingly and buoyantly interviewed people, while I did likewise, rather less charmingly :-D.

People then settled for the night, into their combinations of cardboard, tarpaulins and in some cases using the park benches. And then at three in the morning or so, came the REAL rain. And did it ever come. The already muddy conditions became awful. Some sleepers gave up then, and we’re not blaming them for that. But many diehards continued until dawn.

At the time of writing, £26,000 has been raised, everybody involved has learned from it, and all are aware that the experience was just a small taste of what real rough sleepers go through. Everybody could go home to a dry house, take off their wet clothes, wash and dry everything, sleep in a warm bed. Real rough sleepers stay wet all day. Then do it again.

Words and the poem from Brian:

“What if it was me?”

“You get to learn things for yourself and from other people as well, but in my experience, when you’re first out on the streets, it was that 3 or 4 days of just wandering, walking about being scared, where can I find, where would be safe? And getting used to different noises and things like that. You see places during the day that might be good but then when you get there later there’s either somebody else there, or there are noises, things like that. It’s difficult to get used to but after a while you do get used to things, you get to talk to people. If you’re on your own, it’s different from this. Here, you’ve got the safety in numbers, you’ve got people looking after you. And I’ve known people go back and their stuff’s not there, it’s been moved on by authorities or stolen.

For quite a few years, I was in this situation all the time, and the reality is I would have had at least another day before I could have got something dry when Doorway opened up on Monday morning. I first started being homeless when I was 16 years of age. I fell out with family and found myself on the streets for just over a week. Back to family, and my life has really been backwards and forwards like that, sleeping in vehicles, sleeping out on the streets, in barns, rural areas, everything like that I’ve been through. Absolutely everything. And it’s only thanks to Doorway that they’ve actually seen where my problems have been, helped me through my problems, and I’ve had my own place for nearly 5 years now. I want to bring more awareness to people, that something like this can happen to anybody’s life, can happen at any time, and to look at things differently. It’s like walking past a person not thinking “that will never be me”, but “what if it was me, how would I feel?”

I have written a poem, called ‘If there was no Doorway’ “:

“If there was no Doorway

No welcome table with caring greets

No helping advice or comfy seats

No cup of tea with friendly chat

No fashion corner with knitted hats

No table and chairs with banter and chats

No hot delicious food with puddings or snacks

No toilets to use with nice clean seats

No showers to use so I can feel neat

No washers or dryers so I can be fresh

No music upstairs with chat and song

No sleeping bag and tent for those that need one

No bag of treats with things to eat

No “goodbye, take care, and stay safe out there”

But with staff and volunteers, Doorway is there

Always with a friendly face, and most of all, ongoing care”

Interview with Kelly Morgan from BBC Radio Wiltshire:

“A lot of people are falling off the cliff.”

Kelly Morgan

“I’m here because I’m covering it for Radio Wiltshire, but my real drive to be out here is that I did a night sleeping rough with Brian, one of Doorway’s guests, a while ago. And just him and I, we slept in a Chippenham car park, and it was the most incredible experience. Having a whole night to listen to that man’s life wisdom, and just connect with him, and it really did genuinely touch me. And now, any excuse really, anything Doorway are doing, I really want to cover it, and get the message out there. I think it’s really important that with Brian, you’ve got the authentic voice there, because this is a very jovial affair compared with reality. But nonetheless people are out here under the stars, in the cold, doing their bit, and hopefully raising awareness and some funds for the charity. The time I spent with Brian, I guess I just heard it in real life. I’ve kind of always had an instinct. My feeling is that people are all people. Every single person who comes in has a story, and no matter where you are in this crazy rat-race that we’re all running through, everybody has value, and everybody is trying to do their bit and survive. So I’m always had that mindset, but Brian, just the way he talks and the insight he gave me, how he lived 15 miles away in a clapped out camper van and he used to walk into Chippenham to get to Doorway. And how he says, almost his strapline is don’t look at a homeless person and say “that will never be me”, look at them and say “what if that was me”, because everybody can be so close to that point, all of a sudden, and then life changes in an instant. The cost-of-living crisis is squeezing people into the next bracket, isn’t it? A lot of people are falling off the cliff. We’re living through a really really rough time, and everybody’s feeling it. We are all human beings, we are all faulty, and we can all fall foul of that at any moment.”

Doorway’s CEO, Jo Kitching, and Lead for the event, Sarah Vardakis:

“Once you’ve got over homelessness you’ve never really got over it”

Jo: “What I would like to say about it is that it feels like we’re moving in a bigger, better SleepOut direction. We’ve had some amazing help from our staff member Sarah [Vardakis] who has enabled a lot of this stuff to happen. We’ve got some beautiful lights which were put up free of charge by Light Fantastic. We’ve had beautiful music from Junction 17 the ukelele band, and an amazing session by the Rock Choir. All of that music went down really really well, it was really lovely. We’ve moved the SleepOut to slightly later in the year so it’s not quite so freezing cold and stormy, except that obviously it is. But most importantly there was the opportunity for our guest Brian to talk to the participants about his experience of Doorway and of homelessness and the importance of ongoing support. Because once you’ve got over homelessness you’ve never really got over it necessarily, there’s always some issue that might come and bite you a bit later. It’s really important that we don’t send people away once they’ve got out of their homelessness, that we can keep feeding them, and keep chatting to them, and keep making sure they’re Ok and that they’re seeing their GP and they’ve got their benefits organised, and where we can improve their social networks we’ll do that. We try to listen so Brian is part of a group now which Doorway has set up which means there is an opportunity for the guests to tell us what they think we need to be doing more of or not so much of, and that’s actually been very useful. It’s why we’re setting up a men’s group soon, as that came out of that session, which is actually called ‘Doorway Voice’ that Gail runs.”

Sarah: “I was thrown in the deep end by Jo, she went “there you go, Sarah, there’s a challenge, can you organize the next SleepOut?” ”Of course I can”. I joined Doorway in June, so I’m still a New Girl, essentially. So it was a case of finding a location, did the location have toilets, and go from there, really. Looked towards Monkton Park first of all and realised it wasn’t going to work, because there was nowhere to focus the SleepOut on, it was unpoliceable, and we thought it wasn’t going to work for having that community feel or event feel. So we pleaded, and Dec Baseley managed to help us secure John Coles Park. It wasn’t easy, and Dec helped us an awful lot to get this venue. We had a couple of let downs for site support, but we’ve got food which has arrived, which is delicious. It was just a case of, OK, you have to have a plan B. Lessons learnt. This was my first event for Doorway, people have arrived, money has been raised. We had 66 people register, and I think 31 have turned up because of the weather. Of course real rough sleepers don’t have that choice. But I think we’re doing all right. It’s all a learning curve!”

The sleepers’ thoughts before and after:

     Lorna (Doorway volunteer):

Horrendous. Absolutely horrendous

“I forgot to put my thermal vest on. I’ve got cardboard on top of the bench, and I’m going to get under it and the rain wouldn’t DARE soak into any of my boxes and drip through. I want to be able to look the homeless people, the rough sleepers, in the eye on Wednesday morning when I go to Doorway and say, “been there mate”. I really suspect I’m going to get VERY wet and extremely cold by the end of the night. I have a warm flat very close to here. I’m not going to be going back there, I don’t care what the doctor says – I can do it for one night. Goodness knows how I’m going to get out from under this bench! And I forgot to put my thermal vest on, but I’ve got my lucky rainbow socks on!

I volunteer at Doorway, it’s just such a wonderful place. These folk sometimes just want somewhere to come, somebody to talk to. People assume they know what these people want, which is why you get rough sleepers putting food in bins because people say “here mate, have this, have this” but nobody asks them what they want. It’s just another human being who wants something, and you do what you can.”

[In the morning]

“Horrendous. Absolutely horrendous….. Thank God it was a short night [the clocks changed]. They only took an hour away though. I went into the gazebo, and I was so cold, and I got cramp, and I was shaking and they gave me another hat because it was so wet and put a sleeping bag around me and put hot chocolate in my hands. Homeless people don’t have that. It’s been a dreadful night but I’m so glad I now know what they’re going through. I always did think it was dreadful, but I’d do it again, I’d do it again. ‘C’ [rough sleeper] said he can put up with the cold, it’s the wet. I know exactly what he means now, I really do. What an experience.”

Marie and Callum:

Callum: “I’m 14. I’m here because I want to support the community, and also because my mum made me.”

  Marie: “I did make him, yes, I’m afraid. I just want to teach them how lucky they are, and to do a good cause. Never done anything like this before. It was suggested to me, and it’s a good cause. They’re at an age now where they should appreciate what they’ve got. I just thought it would be a good thing for them to do. You know, these kids are very lucky. I heard about it from a woman where I was volunteering and then I saw it on Facebook.”

[After] Marie: “I’m not their favourite person, as you might expect – I will have to pay for this! There’s going to have be a lot of making up to do from Mum today and for the rest of the week but it’s character-building, a bit of a taste of what some people are going through, and we’re lucky enough to be going home to a nice warm bed.”

Some more quotes and photos:

“How do you dry wet stuff when you’re homeless?”

Tim: “Wet, not much sleep, but it’s all good. I’m pretty upbeat. I’m looking forward to getting some sleep later on. The key thing for me is how do you dry wet stuff when you’re homeless?”

Tom & Emily: Tom – “I did not get any sleep, I think I got the wettest side. I left my shoes outside so they are absolutely…. The amount of stuff we brought, homeless people wouldn’t be able to have that much”. Emily –  “I got a really small amount. I was in the window, I was fairly dry compared with Tom. It’s so muddy I’m not sure they’ll let us in next year. We can see what it’s really like for the homeless people – it’s really not pleasant, and horrible. But I feel they’re probably a lot more skilled at it than we are, really experienced. Specially when you think about the amount of ex-Forces we’ve got on the streets, the skills that they can bring. We could have done with that last night. But we’re lucky we have a dry car to get into, and we did it! I may develop pneumonia, but we did it”

Tracey and Gemma: “We hadn’t done anything like this before. We work for Children’s Services for Wiltshire Council. So it was something we wanted to do as a team, to raise awareness and to raise funds, we raised nearly £900. We made sure we had lots of cardboard and we brought our senses of humour, and I booked Monday off work so I can catch up on my sleep! Her husband is a bit of a Bear Grylls, so he’s provided everything. He’s in his element – he’s at home!”

Amy: “I’m one of the volunteers at Doorway, and I’ve been supervising overnight. I think it’s gone quite well actually. Most people seemed to get a few hours sleep before the rain really kicked in about half past two. And since then we’ve had a few drifters coming in [to the central gazebo] as it’s quite wet and they got quite chilly. So we’ve had to put them by the fire and warm them up and give them hot drinks. For the people sleeping out, it’s not been the nicest of experiences. They’ll remember it!”

Kelly with Brian:

Kelly: “It’s a real taster. Not an experience, a little tiny taster of reality for so many across the county.”

Brian: “It definitely is, and we’ve had people come in here of all different ages, and I can’t thank them enough for giving up their time, giving up their comforts, to see what it is like for just one night.”

And so say all of us at Doorway – thanks to everybody who took part in the SleepOut and to those who facilitated it. It was a great effort. Sadly, as homelessness shows no sign of being eliminated any time soon, we expect to return with this event next year…. I went for a walk in the park the next day, and it seemed to have recovered very well, so who knows, Chippenham Town Council may even let us back in there!

[Martin Searle, April 2023]

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