It’s a cold grey evening in the middle of winter. I’ve been at work all day and have found it hard to concentrate on the tasks at hand because I am constantly thinking about where I will sleep tonight. There’s been a blistering cold wind and rain all the previous day and I’m really worried it will rain again tonight. I’m carrying a cardboard box, sleeping bag and a small bag of clothes. I’m bundled up in a hoodie, beanie and scarf but the wind is biting at my face and it’s chilly. It’s the first time that I am homeless.
I look around for a reasonably covered spot to shelter for the night. I find one in an alcove and go about making my bed out from the cardboard box and sleeping bag. It’s 6.30pm and I try out my bed. The harsh reality of the unyielding concrete and cardboard box mattress is not softened by the sleeping bag. It looks like it might rain so I cover my bed in a tarpaulin and carefully tuck up my bag of personal belongings in there too. I’m worried someone might wander past and take the very little items I have with me while I’m not there.
It’s dinner time and there are other homeless people making there way towards the line for a meal tonight. As we eat we talk about the night ahead. How will we cope with the rain, the cold, will we be warm enough tonight? There is a collegial spirit but you sense the uneasiness and trepidation of what lies ahead amongst them. Tonight I have heard the story of a young women who found living on the street a safer option than home. A woman who fought her way out of poverty, unsafe housing, abuse, mental health and addictions back into employment and housing. Could I do the same, display the same courage and resiliency? After a warming cup of tea the homeless crowd disperses and I make my way back to my bed.
At midnight its very cold and dark in my bed. I pull my beanie down low, wrap my scarf tightly around my neck and pull my hood up. The hard blue tarpaulin rustles loudly as I struggle to find comfort from the cardboard and sleeping bag. I’m painfully aware of the other homeless people nearby who are trying to sleep so I just lay still and hope to drift into an uneasy sleep.
At 3am I am still awake. The unfamiliar sounds of the city, the lights overhead from the building in whose alcove I shelter cast an eerie grey light. The footsteps of strangers walking past me make me uneasy. I realise I have no control of my environment tonight. No certainty of safety or even that I will be able to remain there all night. Others have warned me that we may be asked to pack up and move on by security patrolling the area. Perhaps drunken 3am revellers may come across us and abuse us for being “useless, lazy addicts” and tell us to “go home” when clearly this is our home for the night. I feel really vulnerable.
Just after 4am a loudly chattering couple stir me from my light sleep. The high heel footsteps echo loudly on the concrete and I shift in my bed as they pass me and avoid making eye contact. They did not pause to check I was ok. They did not offer to help me. They did not even say hello. I feel invisible under the tarpaulin.
There is now a light wind and the predawn temperature has dropped. My body has begun to ache from the hardness of the concrete and I realise how cold my feet and hands have become. I try to ignore these things, close my eyes and will myself to sleep.
At 5.ooam one of the other homeless along from me is packing up his gear and moving on. He does this quickly and efficiently. I wonder how many times he has done this. He walks past me and sees me awake and nods his head in acknowledgment. There are no words said but a moment of solidarity and respect passes between us.
By 6am most of the others in the same area as me are awake. I have had about an hours sleep. We talk in hushed tones of the cold night air, how our bodies are aching and the strategies we used to get through the night. We stiffly arise from our beds, roll up our sleeping bags and pack away what little belongings we have with us. I want a hot shower and to change out of my clothes. I feel tired and dirty. I look a mess and I have to go to work for the day. I wonder if my colleagues will be curious about why I look so terrible and if they will ask why? Will they choose to look away from me awkwardly and not question what has happened? This rests uncomfortably with me.
I have been homeless for the night. But this is only one night by choice for me. For 15,000 people in Auckland homelessness is not a choice it is an every day struggle. After one very long and uncomfortable night I have a new glimpse into homelessness. I have just participated in the Lifewise Big Sleep Out.
Lifewise work tirelessly to support our most vulnerable people back into safe accommodation. I chose to become homeless for the night because of the increasing population of young homeless people who social service agencies find it extremely difficult to place into safe accommodation. Young people like Joe. I would like to thank the many people who have donated to my fundraising efforts for Lifewise and who supported me to participate. I was wrapped up in the warmth of your generosity throughout the night. For any of you reading this who still want to donate and be part of the solution to end homelessness it’s not too late. My fundraising page will remain open until the end of July 2014. http://bigsleepout.org.nz/page/katdoughtyyouthlinecentralaucklandmanager
Footnote: The day after I participated in this I was contacted by a colleague to notify me of a group of very young people sleeping rough. No 15 and 16 year olds should be homeless in New Zealand. We desperately need safe emergency accommodation to house them. This is why we need to support agencies like Lifewise and to find solutions to homelessness. So please give generously if you can.