If you live in the UK or Europe, the weather this past weekend would certainly have not escaped you. Perhaps you built a snowman, had a snowball fight, found a frozen lake or tried to catch a snowflake with your tongue? Did you curse the delayed trains or treacherous roads? Or did you not even go outside, but stayed in, snuggled with your central heating? Or did you have to find a way to stop the biting cold wind from freezing your fingers? Brush your box down to remove icicles? Stay awake all night to stop yourself from literally freezing in that position?
There are many, many reasons why people may be homeless and it’s certainly not our place to judge or ridicule or condemn; we are all fellow humans. Over 4,000 people are currently estimated to ‘sleep rough’. (From Shelter’s Autumn 2017 study). As hard as living on the streets already is, throw in minus degrees and you’re in serious trouble.
Each local council has its own rules in place; but generally if the temperature drops below zero degrees / -40F, for 3 consecutive nights, then they will open emergency accommodation for those sleeping on the streets.
Over the past 8 months, Sacks for the Future collected donations of nearly 50 items to create 50 Sacks for our “Streets of London 2017 project” to hand out to those living on the streets of London. Saturday 18 November was chosen as the nights become longer due to the clocks going back and temperatures begin to drop. Key items included large gloves, thermal hats, thick socks as well as hygiene items of soap, flannel, toothbrush and toothpaste, lip balm. We also wanted to provide some biscuits, energy bars, bottled water and some coffee sachets and teabags – not forgetting a bag of candy too.
We were then offered some match funding by the charitable arm of a private Ltd company as they were so impressed with us. They then offered to give us their maximum donation if we could double our sacks to 100 Sacks. Yes, ONE HUNDRED! The Trustees stepped up to this challenge! Donations arrived at our houses (and desks!) from friends and family; packages (mostly anonymous – THANK YOU, you lovely unnamed people!) turned up at HQ and counting, listing, counting, organising, counting tripled in speed and urgency. The space at HQ diminished.
It was decided to include emergency blankets in the Sacks too. Offers to help pack and distribute came in. Honestly we can’t tell you how thankful we are for your support. Whether you ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ our social media, or donated items or bought items to us, we know we couldn’t have made it without your help. Despite requiring a last minute dash to the shops early the Saturday morning of distribution; we had actually received over 7,500 items donated to the project. That is epic! Friends and family and strangers – we were proud of you!
The Trustees gathered at HQ that Friday to finalise packing of the Sacks. With limited space we had to be methodical and efficient. And indeed we were. Not to mention inspired. Early Saturday morning we were packing up the car of a volunteer who agreed to drive the Sacks to our central London meeting place – The Strand. The Trustees jumped on the tube, carrying a handful of Sacks each. We hadn’t even got to our rendezvous point before we began handing out Sacks in the London Underground walkway tunnels. The weather was wet and grim; it was grey and grizzly all day and people were looking for anywhere to keep dry. We walked down The Strand, up through Covent Garden and Leicester Square, through Trafalgar Square and down to Big Ben/Parliament Square. We then split the group and half went via Green Park and the other half went via Piccadilly for us all to meet back at Piccadilly Circus. We walked about 18,000 steps and had met over 80 people living on the streets and handed them one of our Sacks. Yes we got wet and yes we got cold, but we knew we had to complete our task without complaints or grumbles. After all, we were lucky to be able to go home, change in to dry clothes and enjoy warm food and each other’s company.
Now, we’re not trying to make us out to sound amazing – we were truly humbled by the experience (which is why we repeated it again this year), but it was very clear that we had ‘done well’. It was heartbreaking to actually see fellow humans being grateful for a simple wool hat. As we spoke to the individuals, they were genuine in their thanks and appreciated the time we spent talking and of course the Sack full of items. As we criss-crossed streets for maximum coverage, we could see the breakfast bars being eaten, the cotton wool buds being used, dirty socks being replaced, face wipes being used, the list could go on.
Members of the public watched what we were doing and we had a few “thank you’s” and “well-done’s” from strangers (and even a hearty “Bravissimo” clapped at us). We met a lovely young man called Pavel (Hi Pavel!) who regularly filled his rucksack up with clean socks and pants and would just hand them out to those in need as he walked by. We need more Pavels in this world that’s for sure. Unfortunately we saw the worst side of humanity too. One Trustee had just handed over a Sack to a young guy who was shivering and the Trustee was helping to get the gloves from the Sack. A lady in the ATM/cash point queue (the irony!) who had watched this discussion and exchange, leant over to the Trustee and said very loudly “You should have just given him plastic bags and tied them with rubber bands if he wanted to keep his hands warm”. We still can’t even think about this without seething in anger and we hope that you feel as aggrieved by it too.
At the end of the day, we were left with 17 Sacks still to hand out. It was dark now and we’d given to everyone we’d seen and we know that those living on the streets ‘bed down’ to secure their spots, so we were unlikely to find more people.
The remaining Sacks were taken down to Dorset with some of the Trustees and distributed the following nights in Poole and Bournemouth. Different town, but the same situation. One lady clearly ‘lived in a bush’ on an A-Road and was told she’d have to be homeless ‘longer’ to prove she was in need.
We heard many stories of people having had items stolen from them by other people on the streets, by strangers or drunken people. We saw the bruises from they had been beaten up. We saw the state of their clothes, the need for medical attention, the hunger in their eyes and the smell of their possessions. Bad advice and incorrect information was rife – many didn’t even know where their nearest soup kitchen was.
We printed a small note to be added to the Sack which listed a few support options and also a list of shelters, food kitchens and outreach groups. (Our thanks to the Charity “The Pavement” who collated the list (www.thepavement.org.uk). We were also able to note the locations of many of those sleeping rough and passed on details to another Charity called “SteetLink” (www.streetlink.org.uk) who connect people sleeping rough with local services that can offer support. One thing was very clear: it’s certainly not a ‘choice’ to live on the streets.
Our thoughts this weekend went out to those who had received our Sacks and hoped that they found a little comfort in the freezing wind and snow. But mostly though, our thoughts were on those other 3,900….