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13 December

OV in St Basil’s Big Brum Sleepout

We were delighted to receive this report from Kate Phillips (Co 81-83) of her recent experience sleeping out in support of St Basil’s …

This week I learnt something new about myself: I would not survive long as a homeless person. Simply not tough enough. Having spent just one freezing Friday night in a cardboard box on the streets of Birmingham, I retreated under the duvet of my warm bed where I stayed for four whole days with flu.

And mine was the pamper version of a cardboard box. We – two equally unhinged friends and I – slept in a homemade cardboard shelter within the secure grounds of St Philip’s Cathedral, along with hundreds of like-minded people. We were fed free, wholesome food and warm drinks throughout the evening and had portaloos but a stone’s throw away. It’s a fantastic way to raise awareness – though this is definitely not the real homeless experience, a point St Basils stress when you join the throngs.

That said, I’m rather proud of myself. I am, quite literally, terrified of the cold. My idea of hell would be exile in a dark, frozen land with skimpy clothing and no way of getting warm. This is the hell that homeless people face most wintry nights out on the streets.

My midlife crisis seems to have gone something like this: identify everything that scares the living daylights out of me, take up the gauntlet and face down my inner demons. So far I have taken up singing lessons with a view to performing (foolishly brave – ask my kids), Cessna flying lessons (big gulp) and signed up to sleep in subzero conditions on a Brum pavement. On the bright side, still cheaper than a Lamborghini.

Also, I have a confession to make. Once the idea – followed by the fear – of sleeping rough in Brum had taken hold, I found myself googling phrases like “premium cashmere underwear” and “springy foil mat”. I spent hours calculating how many layers I could pile on before losing the capacity to walk, stay upright, sit on a train seat. Aesthetics, by this stage, were out the window. But once the Just Giving donations started pouring in (this was clearly a cause close to many people’s hearts), I felt an obligation to be as real as possible.

And so it was that one bleak November evening I joined my friends in deepest Brum, queued up for my cardboard and plastic sheet, and set to building our little home for the night. It was forecast to be minus 3 degrees that night – ‘real-feel’ minus 6 – so, despite my resolutions, I’d succumbed to seven layers of clothing, a foil mat, a space blanket plus extreme sleeping bag. So had my friends. After the welcome warmth of the cathedral for a talk by St Basils and an interfaith service, we settled down for the night around 1.30am. The rules are no alcohol or loud talking after midnight though there was evidence of plenty of both well into the early hours, but we decided we were hard core and tried without. The cold seeped through all my layers, the ground was rock hard and we shivered and fidgeted our way through the night till 5.30am. It was tough, miserable and seemed interminable. We ‘woke’ to find the free bacon butty breakfast had gone, as had all the other participants and we were the last men standing, so to speak. We wearily dismantled our shelter, recycled the cardboard and plastic and headed for our warm beds.

Kate Phillips Sleep out 2019

On our way to the train station we passed two motionless mounds of blankets in different doorways, poignant images of real homelessness. I couldn’t conceive of how they had survived that night without the heat of other bodies and a plastic tarpaulin covering them. We quietly left them our foil mats and headed for home.

Home. I will never, ever take home for granted again. Friends asked if I would do it again? Absolutely, categorically, emphatically YES. It was invigorating to get out of my bubble, to be challenged, to meet such inspirational people. But most of all … to be humbled. I can now imagine what the – far too many – homeless souls of the country experience every single freezing night. I salute them. And I salute the charities that support them.

St Basils offers accommodation, face-to-face support and life skills advice to thousands of young homeless people in the West Midlands. Every November they invite the public to take part in the Big Brum Sleepout to raise awareness and funds for homelessness.