One Night On The Streets…. my experience of the #P3BigSleepOut

As I was getting ready to go out Friday night, sitting on the edge of my bed pulling on a second pair of socks – it struck me how perverse the situation I was about to put myself in really was. Warm in my house, stocking up on snacks and drinks.  James and I were about to spend the night sleeping rough on the streets of Wolverhampton to raise money and awareness for P3Charity.  

P3 charity and social enterprise. It started in Wolverhampton and now works nationally with the homeless. They run hostels and help people from all walks of life promoting independent living and supporting some of the most vulnerable and at risk people in our towns and cities – And those homeless that we were supporting Friday night, and that they support daily don’t have a second pair of socks to pull on, they don’t have the advantage of  wondering if they would be warm enough in the 2 t-shirts and hoodie I was already wearing – they have to just get on with it and so I know my night sleeping “rough” was in luxury compared to some.

8pm – Getting going

Arriving at their hostel in Thornley Street at around 8pm we were greeting by an already amassed group of about 45 other charity workers volunteers, residents  and ex residents of the hostel readying themselves for the night ahead. After a welcome from the Mayor, and a cup of tea, old duvets and cardboard were distributed and we headed towards the civic centre, and St Peters Square which was to be our base for the night. Everyone was in good spirits as we looked to prepare our beds. Those that had taken part the previous year staked their claim to their spots and we found a bit of floor just under the overhang of the civic centre…. shelter of sorts.

We're all set. #P3BigSleepOut #charity #homeless #BigSleepOut www.justgiving.com/jamesandsteph

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A layer of cardboard (or camping mat for those that had them), a folded duvet and a sleeping bag made up the majority of the beds. Others opted to stay in camping chairs – or as one volunteer did – and air bed (cheat!!!). And we got down to the business of being homeless for the night. The first couple of hours were fun as we got to know the people around us random dancing broke out in the form of an Irish Jig and people dared not use the port-a-loo for fear of being of spun.

One way of keeping warm #dance. #P3BigSleepOut #charity #homeless #BigSleepOut www.justgiving.com/jamesandsteph

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Time drags on

People were in good spirits but as it crept passed midnight and everyone started to settle down reality started to creep in…  I was there safe in the knowledge that my car was only 5 minutes down the road, that a hot shower and a comfy bed was waiting for me once this was over… but  for the estimated 231 people who look for shelter every night in Wolverhampton, they don’t have that security.  

P3 have 21 beds in their local hostel,  and 5  No Second Night Out supported “emergency” beds, but that still leaves over 200 people each night out in the cold with nothing but their own thoughts for company.  It was midnight and I only had 6 more hours to pass but the reality for some is this is their daily routine,  and when you’ve nothing but time stretched before you, time with nothing to look forward to and nothing to think about other than where your next meal will come from, will I be safe this evening where will I go in the morning it is little wonder that some turn to the oblivion of drink or drugs to get them through it….

1am – and so the bell tolls

The noise from the pubs and clubs kept drifting over disturbing those trying to sleep. People walked through , talking to us- and admittedly they were probably more confused by finding nearly 50 people in a doorway in sleeping bags than they would have been by one  so were more open to chat  and as the night wore on I became more and more aware of the chiming of St Peters clock – every 15 minutes and somewhere in the distance there is an argument and sirens….

The local police popped by a few time throughout the night, they were aware we were there and they came by to check everything was alright. At one point two PCSO’s came over while a trio of lads leaving the city a little worse for wear wandered through – they were jovial and put some money in the collection bucket the officer was holding and one of the residents joked – “you stopped me from doing that the other day officer!” – and that joke highlighted another question for me- we were there as an organised group, would the police have come to check in if I were a solo –  really homeless –  sleeper and if not who would? And if  they did stumble across me out alone would they check if I was ok or would they just have moved me on?

3am – Get a fucking Job!

I was still awake at 3am when a pissed man wondered the opposite side of the square. He stopped as he notices us and starts screaming abuse.  Apparently it was people like us that was everything that was wrong with society (…the irony) and that  we should all “GET FUCKING JOBS”.

He shouted and argued at us but with himself for a few minutes – offering to fight us all if we wanted to go over to him – big brave man wasn’t brave enough to come over and find out what we were all actually doing there  and unsurprisingly no one took him up on the offer and eventually he left.

We’d all ignored him, mumbling between ourselves what an idiot he was, safety in numbers had kept us secure but I felt genuinely aggrieved and I could tell others did too. I was scared for the people he may encounter who were alone.  What would he do with his aggressiveness when stumbling across an individual alone, cold, hungry and tired?  Where do they go to sleep safely when there are odious people like him walking the streets?

The  bigotry this one person displayed was awful and it highlighted the stigma that follows homelessness everywhere –  that somehow it is a lifestyle choice to be out on the streets. What people fail to realise is that there is cracks we could all fall down anywhere. Most of the population is only one pay packet away from financial hardship and it only takes one slip, one bad decision, one wrong turn and you too could find yourself in need of the support charities like P3 provide.

I was almost there once myself, through no fault of my own – 10+ years ago and only by the grace of god did I have the support of my family and a floor I could sleep on that kept a roof over my, and my sons head.

To contrast the shouty man though others who came across us stopped to find out what we were doing, some left donations and others insisted on shaking the hand of everyone involved restoring some of my faith in the good of the masses.

4:30am – Here comes the rain

From 4am I managed to start to doze, on and off, with my sleeping bag pulled up right over my head to keep the breeze off my face,  waking every time the  clock chimed.

Cold surprisingly wasn’t too much of an issue, I remember thinking how lucky we were with the weather – for an October night it was surprisingly mild just a bit of drizzle early on but around 4:30am a rain shower hit. It came down suddenly  and there was mad scramble to get under the hang over from those in the open – the wind blew spray into where we were laying and I was again wide awake. 

I spent the next hour lying, listening to the murmur of conversation of those around me, to the  bars emptying their bottle bins with a clatter and an argument between a group of women somewhere in the city that by the time it reached me sounded like a gaggle of geese squabbling.

5.30am Packing up

At 5:30am the last of our visitors appeared, an obviously drunk young lady with a story of a fight with her boyfriend who had walked miles into town and just wanted somewhere to sit for 5 minutes and promised not to call the police on us if we let her rest on the end of one of the sleeping bags.

It took us a minute to get her to understand that we weren’t really homeless and we were there for charity but we let her sit for a while, a broken night sleep further disturbed and the group started to stir and pack up for the short walk back to the hostel and breakfast…..

Nearly 6am and we're starting to pack up, and so ends our night sleeping rough. #P3BigSleepOut

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Sleeping rough so others don’t have to

In 21st century Britain the fact that in a supposed first world country we still have so many people eking out an existence on the streets is heart breaking. There are many reasons as to why people end up homeless but it is charities like P3 that break the cycle that keeps them there. They work hard to ensure that the most social excluded are given the support they need, be it in their hostels or through their outreach workers, to live their lives to their full potential. One day you may find yourself in a position that you need the support and help of an organisation like P3 and this is why I chose to take part Friday night, raising just a little bit of money for and hopefully a bit of awareness of those people who need the support NOW.

I spent a night sleeping rough in the hope that now and in the future others wont have to and I would be grateful if you could do your bit by supporting P3 and other homeless charities in the work they do. Groups and organisations like these are always after volunteers who are able to give a bit of their time, or you can find other ways of helping through practical and financial donations (you can still sponsor James and me if you like).

Streetlink

Finally  if you spot someone sleeping rough, don’t be a dick screaming abuse like the idiot we encountered, call Streetlink on 0300 500 0914 and give as much information as you can – this support line will connect rough sleepers to local services hopefully getting them the advice and support that they need.

Hyperlocals and Facebook

At the 2013 Talk About Local Unconference this last weekend I pitched a session to start a conversation around Hyperlocal and Other Social Media. We’ve had so much interest on our facebook page I wanted to find out what other Hyperlocals were using as well. Talk About Local Sessioni Proposal Post It As it turns out (most unsurprisingly for someone with a mouth the size of mine) I did most the talking –  I was asked lots about our experience of using Facebook particularly, and so this led me to ask the question – If you were looking to start your hyperlocal site now – could you just use a facebook page?

I didn’t answer this myself at the time – but my answer is no. I still see WV11.co.uk as our site and Facebook is an extension of that, it’s our discussion forum – If Wv11 is the place I live in – Facebook is the pub I go to talk about the stuff that happens there, with the people that live there.  BUT to expand on that –  I don’t think our hyperlocal would have been as successful as it has been without Facebook and with the experience I’ve gained I definitely wouldn’t try to launch a Hyperlocal without some kind of presence there.

We use other sites too – but this is definitely our communities platform of choice.

Pages

The original plan for Wv11 wasn’t for it to be news site as all – but a community discussion board.  A forum for local people to discuss local issues online.  we then added the resource page because we though “what else would be useful” and only then did the news feed appear as a way of  adding as a bit of google juice for people to find the forum when they were looking for information on the area.

We still wanted a way of promoting the forum to local people so we played with what was then a new feature of facebook, pages. We set it up with the same name and branding as the website and invited a few local friends  to become a fans.  We posted links to news articles from the site to the page (we still do) but still tried to kick conversations off on the sites forum – that didn’t last long.

6 months after launching the site we archived the discussion board, we simply had no local interest in it – people who had never used the internet socially before didn’t want to move from a platform they were familiar with  to discussions on the forum – they don’t even use the simple comment form in WordPress – but they didn’t have to. Our fans started commenting on links we had posted to facebook and other conversations naturally started to happen there.  We continued to post longer form news articles to the site but we focused our engagement where the people already were and it’s worked well.

Tip Top Tips

4 and a bit years on we have over 5000 facebook  fans  and  I think we have learned a lot about how to make the most of our page for the community we’ve built there. These are my 3 top tips.

1.Think mobile. When we post links to stories on the main site we try and summarise that content for mobile only readers – some people still wont or cant click on on external links from the page, especially those with contracts or PAYG mobiles that include free facebook browsing but not a lot of other data.

2. Photos, photos and more photos. Anything we post with an image is guaranteed to the get more love than either text or video.  It takes the lowest amount of effort from the reader to take in the information so they engage with it, which improves your reach. You can also invite readers to tag themselves and friends in photos from events. Videos are also popular but get less views from mobile than desktop. I think this maybe down to the data usage again.

3.Timing. Facebook insights are a wonderful thing. They are broken down to such an extent that we can even know when our fans are online – We get a graph that averages hourly visitor numbers over days  – but we can also see data for each day of the week which allows us to post when potentially the most people are online to reach the widest audience. WV11.co.uk

There are plenty more I could add to this, but what I’d actually like to know is what are your top facebook tips?