My pillow was grass, not stone. In the grounds of Chichester Cathedral, on a brisk but not freezing October night. An interesting exercise but thankfully hardly an insight into what it truly must be like to be homeless.
I took the space of my friend Troels Bendix at the annual funds and awareness raising event for Stonepillow, the Chichester night refuge and rehabilitation charity. Troels had a bad cycling accident in July and as we all waited for him to regain consciousness I decided that filling in for him at the Sleepout was a practical way of showing support for him, as well as for the 75 people a week helped by the charity. When the day arrived, it couldn’t have been worse timing for me: rugby world cup and, much more importantly, my mother is ill in hospital following a stroke.
I arrived after the making of the cardboard shelters, entered into with gusto by the many young for whom cramming loads of people into a box for the night was lots of fun. Bah humbug! What about tired and worried women wanting to chill? ….. Loosen up Rosemary - it’s not quiet or a picnic on the streets!
My bed was a wheelbarrow box from the Community Garden under the groundsheet cum carpet from our tent, folded in half with my sleeping bag slipped inside. I was well dressed in outdoor layers and my beloved Alaskan Copper River fleece hoodie, so cold (with my built-in insulation) wasn’t going to be a problem. I had bubble wrap under my hips to avoid lasting damage and had my Paddington Bear with me, a companion of 40 years: there was room for him inside the envelope of my groundsheet too. I forgot a pillow but my coat was fine rolled up, and a cardboard box over my head kept the draft from round the corner of the Cathedral off my face. Once a Queen’s Guide, always a Queen’s Guide!
Paddington was with me to cuddle but also as my token refugee. The agony of the sculpture by Diana Brandenburger inside the Cathedral was a powerful reminder of the hardship being endured now, with worse to come as winter progresses, by the thousands fleeing Syria and beyond in the hope of a new life in Europe. To leave any home to the uncertainty of life on the streets, for however long, is tragic for all involved. As I drive to visit my mother there is a banner over a garden fence: “Come home Tom, we love and miss you”.
I was also struck by the agonies of doubt and worry. I knew that my Mum is being well looked after and she knew that I was on the streets/Cathedral green for one night only. Imagine being very ill, estranged from someone you love and not knowing how to get in touch. In an age of communications there is still so much anguish brought about through arguments, misunderstanding and ill-timed words.
Of course I had a little whisky in my pocket (Aultmore 12yo) and I did wonder whether I should actually drink it as I am sure that alcohol abuse must be an great contributory factor to the breakdown of relationships and homelessness. I did have my little nip - and I thanked God that I am in control of my love of whisky. If only my food portion control was as good as that of my drams!
Come 07.00 it was time to get up - the Stonepillow crew actually went round to all the shelters to get people moving. The task was to get all the cardboard into the dustcart that arrived promptly to clear Cathedral Green: it was almost as if all possible traces of the homeless had to be removed before the faithful arrived to worship. I am certain that was not the driving factor and it was probably more about keeping the autumn tourists engaged with the beauty of Chichester, or clearing the way for the half marathon that started before most people were out of their warm and cosy beds. None of you will be surprised to read that I did not sign up for the marathon as well as the Sleepout!
As I headed home for a hot shower and clean clothes I realised just how much the showers and washrooms established by Pope Francis for the homeless by St Peter’s Square are such a vital resource for maintaining some human dignity for the homeless of Rome. What compassionate understanding.
The Sleepout for me was a pause in my life at a particularly difficult time: and a chance to do something tangible for the many who are so much worse off than me. My thanks go to everyone who has put coins in my jam jar at talks and cookery demonstrations in the past few weeks, and to those of you who have - and still might - donate online. And to everyone who works or volunteers at Stonepillow to help the homeless in our city.
You can still donate to my fund-raising by clicking here.