Local estate agent joins the St Albans Abbey Sleepout

Former participants of the St Albans Abbey Sleepout

Former participants of the St Albans Abbey Sleepout - Credit: Archant

Alasdair Melville, regular ‘Property’ contributor and managing director of Hawk & Chadwick sales and lettings, shares his experiences of taking part in the 2015 St Albans Sleepout, raising awareness for homelessness.

As December evenings go, Friday was a rather mild one. I had spent most of the afternoon, as the light faded, packing a small rucksack that I usually take with me on my longer walks in the countryside, with a few extra provisions. Before leaving the house it was the threat of cold that worried me most as I knew from my formative days of late night escapades in the pubs of the town that, even in the summer months, the temperature drops dramatically in the small hours until dawn. As a result, my bag was rammed full of extra jumpers, gloves, hats and kit you might expect a climber on Mount Everest to be using, not somebody bedding down for a night on the grass in an affluent market town in Hertfordshire.

I parked my car in St Michael’s village and walked through Verulamium Park. The park was dark, deserted and the solitude allowed me to consider the very real feeling of being alone in the dark without a warm abode or a bed awaiting me later on - this alone is quite an eerie feeling. Clutching my sleeping bag under my arm, I pushed on towards The Fighting Cocks and then up the hill to the Abbey itself which was fully lit and a welcoming sight after the dark depths of the lake at the bottom of the hill.

Upon arriving the scene was bustling with volunteers who all appeared to be in good spirits, swapping tips to keep warm and some already within the grounds building cardboard cities and shelters on a surprisingly large scale! Registration was inside the Refectory in the new chapter house, and was filled with people of all ages kitted out in anything from extreme survival gear to animal ‘onesies’.

After registration I set out to find a spot which later presented itself at the very far end of the cathedral grounds, just on the south eastern corner of the abbey gateway. Another group arrived and helped me to make the best use of the space, and they also brought with them some cardboard and plastic sheeting to defend against the innate damp and seeping cold lodged in the ground.

I will say now that I cannot even begin to suggest that I understand what being homeless is like. I cannot say with any conviction that my experience entitles me to speak for anyone in such a situation - all I can put forth is that I now have a slightly greater understanding of the hidden elements of the reality of the experience. For me, the cold wasn’t really a problem - I had many layers and I was inside a very warm sleeping bag, tucked into a large plastic bag (kindly donated by a neighbouring sleeper) on top of a cardboard box. The temperature didn’t affect me, and in honesty the location wasn’t terribly uncomfortable either, save for the constant gusts of wind which were at times quite frightening.

The worst element of this was the constant interruption of sleep, whether it is from the wind whipping at the plastic sheeting or my face, passing cars and people, chattering voices and laughter nearby - it’s a constant psychological assault, and it really brings home the fact that it’s hard enough to get some sleep in a controlled charity sleep out event where you know that the following day you can be in your own bed.....now imagine coping with little or broken sleep on an empty stomach, or when ill with cold, flu or a more serious illness, not knowing if you’re safe from robbery or violence, not knowing if you’ll be woken to be ‘moved on’.

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The problem becomes apparent when ‘society’ doesn’t want the homeless on their streets and employ methods such as spikes in doorways and encouraging police to move the homeless out of town centres and away from residents’ homes. Imagine the feeling of your former peers and neighbours wishing you gone without a second thought.

I made it through most of the night, and managed to wolf down a cup of tea and a festive turkey and cranberry sandwich from the refectory before gathering my things and staggering off to my car for the zombified drive home and subsequent collapse into my bed. I feel that I have a slightly deeper insight into homelessness, although I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I thoroughly recommend taking part in the Sleepout. It’s a great event, it’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s exciting and it really does open your eyes to a whole world of experience that you might not otherwise have known about.

I hope this has helped give you a little insight on the Sleep Out 2015 and encourages you to take part next year.