On November 16, I’ll be spending the night outside, in a sleeping bag laid on freezing concrete in Greenwich. I’ve never slept rough before, but I’ll be happily doing it then to raise sponsorship money in aid of Centrepoint, the homeless youth charity that supports over 9,000 young people into a home and a job every year. One’s compassion shouldn’t depend on one’s own experience, but I’d be lying if I claimed Centrepoint wasn’t so especially close to my heart, because in my teenage years, having run permanently away from home to London, I was homeless myself. I was one of the 14 per cent of British people who have, at some time or another, been part of what charities call “The Hidden Homeless”.
To be Hidden Homeless is exactly that – you spend your life concealing the fact that you don’t have anywhere to live, for the sake of your dignity, relationships and ongoing survival. Your life is spent in payphone boxes, trying to cajole or sweet talk yourself into a bed for the night. Others comment constantly on the size of the bag you inexplicably lug around everywhere. Your shoulder aches permanently from its weight. You fantasise about taking daily showers, walking down streets luggage-free, being able to make a cup of tea and go to bed before others, about putting your feet up in an armchair without fear of appearing presumptuous or rude. You hang around too long at parties and hope the hosts fall asleep before chucking out time. You go to friends’ houses for dinner and, to your indignity and shame, pretend to fall asleep in front of their TV and silently pray they don’t wake you so you won’t once again have to sleep on a looping night bus. You turn up at people’s houses inconveniently early in the morning, carrying a warm loaf, as though breakfast was a jolly idea and you haven’t, in fact, been waiting all night to sit down. Unprompted, you do people’s washing-up, tidying and cooking in the hope of becoming indispensable. You shrink your personality, even your body, in the hope your presence will go unnoticed, like a small child sitting under the table at a boozy family party. You tell everyone you’re sleeping on a friend’s sofa, because you don’t want to admit you’ve said the same to that friend, as you try to spread as thinly as possible what you perceive to be the massive burden of your presence in other people’s homes. You wear the same clothes for longer than you’d like, you stay in relationships way longer than you should, because a bad boyfriend still owns a bed. You stay in squats, with strangers, with drug addicts – anyone who can and will put you up. Wherever you go, you’ll know full well you’ve outstayed your welcome. You dread the moment someone inevitably tells you they have plans and their own life, and so you’ll need to move on.
You wear the same clothes for longer than you’d like, you stay in relationships way longer than you should, because a bad boyfriend still owns a bed
I genuinely feel embarrassed now, as I type all this down some 27 years later, in the roomy, centrally heated house with my name on its deeds, where I’ll return after my Sleep Out for a hot bath and a cuddle. One night on the streets with my friends for charity seems way easier than recalling the time I fell and hit my head in Waterloo station and, as I came around to the sound of a police officer radioing an ambulance, immediately felt relieved I’d have a plastic chair in A&E for a bed. It’s easier than thinking about all the time I could have spent working or learning, but my full-time job was fretting and looking for a bed.
My part in all this is relatively easy. But what will your sponsorship of the Sleep Out do, in real terms, for all types of homeless young people? £15 will provide a homeless young person with a basic toiletries kit, allowing them to retain dignity, self-respect and the standard of hygiene necessary to find work and accommodation. £30 will buy them a professional-looking outfit to wear to a job interview. Just £95 will set up a homeless youngster with the bare essentials for starting an apprenticeship, or college or university course. The Sleep Out isn’t asking you to throw money blindly at a problem. It isn’t asking you to play party politics. It’s asking you to make real and meaningful change to a young person’s life, enabling them the opportunity to pay that forward in adulthood.
The Centrepoint Sleep Out can only approximate the experience of sleeping rough, of course. And, crucially, the charity acknowledges that rough-sleeping is only one dreadful way in which the homeless are forced to live. The Hidden Homeless are not in cardboard boxes on The Embankment, or begging for spare change outside the Underground. They’re wandering around, like I was, trying to stay in the game, trying to avoid the extreme, life-threatening danger and social invisibility of living on the pavement. Centre Point wants to help them too, and it knows there are hundreds of reasons they may have ended up with no fixed abode. They might have fled or been banished from their family homes after abuse, neglect, remarriage or bereavement. They may have been turfed out by a partner, or become unemployed and fallen behind with rent. They are young people with talent, ideas, love, diligence, passion, smarts who, until they find a place to call home, won't be able to realise their huge potential. Just a little help allowed me to realise mine. A few hundred quid in rent added to retail work wages allowed me to become a journalist, a high-bracket taxpayer, a manager of others, a homeowner, a mother of two happy, well-cared-for children. I didn’t do it on my own. I did it because others believed in me and decided to help. Every kid deserves that and somewhere safe to sleep.