As we gear up for our Really Big South Essex Sleep Out in October, two friends who took part last year share how the challenge changed their view about homelessness for good.
When Cass Francis and Tina Bennett signed up for the Really Big South Essex Sleep Out in 2016 they wanted to take it seriously. While most participants camp in their back garden, these friends were determined to survive a night sleeping rough. Not shy of a challenge, the pair wanted to take it to the limits, so they approached their local church for permission to sleep in their grounds for the night, to raise money for HARP.
They found some cardboard to sleep on as the ground was damp from the rain, and as the weather took a turn for the worse they took shelter in the eaves of the church doorway.
Despite having base layers on, Tina said it was still cold: “My face was so cold from the wind, and it was noisy, I was aware of every little sound. We were aware of people in the church yard eating and drinking, they sounded drunk and were probably harmless but I was nervous. It became important to stay quiet and become invisible. I kept thinking please don’t let them see us.”
Tina continued: “You don’t know if the person making the noise is a nice person, or what their intentions are; my heart was pounding.”
Cass added: “At midnight a friend of mine came by to check on us and brought a flask of milky coffee. Tina and I were both laying on the ground in our sleeping bags and as she walked up to us with her dog, even though she was a friend with good intentions, it was still a shock to suddenly have someone standing over us in the dark. It was only when we were in that situation, in that environment, that I realised how vulnerable people – particularly women – sleeping on the streets must feel.”
As the night drew on Cass managed to drift off to sleep but Tina remembers feeling very protective of her friend and recalls being on guard. She said that when you are on the ground and people walk past it is intimidating - “you feel a figure looming over you.”
The dark night may have been frightening but the pair both said the bitter morning was just as bad. They were grateful for sunrise but the cold air on their tired bodies took its toll after an unsettled night.
Cass and Tina raised almost £1,000 for HARP that night, but more than that they have a new understanding of the challenges of sleeping rough and as a result they have much more empathy for those on the streets.
After the challenge Tina walked home and stopped for a hot coffee on route. Her hands were so cold that as she fumbled for the loose change she said the cashier looked at her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, and it was then that she realised that it was because she looked homeless; she was cold, had little sleep, and was carrying her sleeping bag. That judgemental look made Tina feel awful, an experience she said nobody should have to go through, especially someone who has endured a night on the streets. But unlike those that are homeless Tina and Cass returned to their warm, welcoming homes after the 12 hour challenge. Tina said: “When I walked through the door the heating hit me. I got changed into my soft pyjamas and felt so emotional as I realised just how hard the night had been and how grateful I was to be home.”
Cass told us: “I was conscious before we took part in this that there was a chance what we were doing would be perceived as homelessness tourism. Both Tina and I thought very carefully about our motivation and decided that taking part in the challenge the way that we did was our way of doing justice to the reality that is night after night for homeless people in Southend.”
Since the challenge the pair have made it their mission to support HARP to change the way homelessness is perceived, and reach out and help those most in need of support and compassion. They are planning to get involved with The Really Big South Essex Sleep Out again this year to help HARP raise much needed funds to continue their work. If you’d like to do the same, head to www.essexsleepout.org.
For more about what you can do to help someone that is homeless visit: www.harpsouthend.org.uk/campaigns or to get involved with this year’s Really Big South Essex Sleep Out register here: www.essexsleepout.org.