My Big Sleep Out in aid of St. Basils

The Big Sleep Out participants: friends Dawn Burgess and Richard Frazer

The Big Sleep Out participants: friends Dawn Burgess and Richard Frazer

Last year a friend told me about a charity event that involves you sleeping on the streets for a night… Horrified yet fascinated I listened to what it was like and why he did it. That is what introduced me to the St. Basils The Big Sleep Out fundraising event

My buddy, Richard Frazer continued, “You basically take a sleeping bag and some cardboard and kip outside in the coldest month of the year and raise money and awareness of young people living on the street.” I signed up immediately and the help of my friend I was all set for my first ever sleep out.

I first met Richard through a local amateur dramatics group that we are both part of and as it happens the night of St. Basils The Big Sleep Out coincided with no less than three performances of a local pantomime we were both performing in. While many thought we were completely bonkers doing an evening show then sleeping rough overnight, only to be required to be fresh and ready for another two shows the following day, I took it as more of a challenge!

St. Basils The Big Sleep Out took place on Friday December 6th and I have to say I was more than a little apprehensive, even considering I had Richard by my side and a cosy sleeping bag plus a few cardboard layers in tow.

The advice from the event organisers was to wear lots of thin layers; I had several jumpers and a big coat in a bag alongside my bed for the night. I parked about half a mile from St. Basil’s headquarters in Digbeth, grabbed my stuff from the boot of the car and started walking. It was a fairly mild night considering it was December, so far there was no rain or even worse, snow, but harsher weather conditions had been mentioned as a possibility.

Walking through the dark streets alone to meet with my fellow Big Sleepers and carrying my precious bag that I required for my ‘somewhat’ comfort and safety, I already had an insight as to what it must be like to be in a situation where you are homeless.

When I reached the team I was greeted with the full impact of the sleep out; with cardboard tents and plastic sheets blowing in the breeze, people stood and sat around chatting. The car park that housed most of the sleepers was already full; the scene resembled a campsite at a festival and although whilst the atmosphere seemed jovial, things were about to get serious. I needed to find Richard and a ‘pitch.’ When we finally met up we set about choosing our plot and bedding down for the night. The street alongside the car park was lined with makeshift tents all along the pavement, I know it was December but there really was no room in the Inn!

While we may have found somewhere inside all the other camps I elected to set up camp on the street just under a railway arch, I guess because sleeping under the beautiful ancient brick arches of old Birmingham had a sort of ‘real feel’ to it, however I had no idea of where to start or how to make a bed.

Former advice had taught me to build something small, using several layers of cardboard and sheeting will make a warmer and dryer bed. Using large pieces of cardboard and duct tape we constructed triangular shaped shelters and laid them down on top of plastic sheets to stop the moisture in the ground from rising up into the base.

Fortunately the lack of rain ensured the ground was fairly dry, and we kept some plastic nearby to cover the tents should the weather turn. Before turning in for the night I walked round, talking to others and finding out about their experiences of the sleep out. Just after 1am we turned our lights out and everyone climbed into their boxes and settled down to try and get some sleep.

At this point I was wearing several layers of clothes, thick coat, wooly hat, scarf and gloves and had climbed into my sleeping bag. Using my bag as a pillow I made my self as comfortable as I could and surprisingly drifted of to sleep…

CRASH, BANG, WALLOP! All of a sudden I was aware of intrusive noises that reverberated in my ears. Engines, air brakes and automated reverse sensors screaming ‘Caution this vehicle is reversing,’ woke me with a start. I checked the time-5am, ‘Crikey, I’ve had some sleep’ I thought! And the thunderous noise that roused me from my slumber was the trucks that had arrived to take the cardboard away and leave the street clear: just like we had never been there.

If I’m honest at that point I could have easily drifted back off to sleep but I had to get up and get moving- we all did. Strangely I wasn’t cold just very groggy, and as I put away my sleeping bag and tore apart my cardboard home, it all seemed all a bit surreal.

While still sleepy I queued for the coffee and toast that was provided and I reflected on how it would feel to have to do that every night, using what you found as a bed, battling with weather and finding a safe place to sleep.

Be it queuing in soup kitchens or begging for food/small change to hauling your belonging s around and moving around day after day, night after night, is a truly terrifying and lonely existence. I was lucky as it was for one night only and I had fellow sleepers around me.

Yes, I felt a bit tired the following day for my appearances on stage and was still recovering when I returned to my day job as Veterinary nurse the following Monday, but I didn’t grumble, in fact I was humbled to actually take a small glimpse of what life is like on the streets for real.

Those with homes and families just like you and I, don’t realise how lucky we are. While my little bit helps, it is only a tiny drop in the ocean of what organisations like St. Basils need. Thousands of people face homelessness every day and I’m proud to say along with hundreds of others I have helped a remarkable charity provide people with a roof over their heads and a chance of a future.