It’s hard to imagine living on the street where a piece of cardboard could be your pillow, your bed and your home for the night. Every night Chester’s city centre sees more than 50 people sleeping rough and with numbers escalating many will not have a home to go to this Christmas.
As a result of the growing number of people living rough in the city Chester Aid to the Homeless (CATH) host a sponsored sleep out each year in the Friary car park off Grosvenor Street. This year was their 24th annual sleep out and to understand how it feels to sleep rough I packed up my cardboard box and volunteered myself for the night to appreciate how much we all take our beds for granted.
Joined with more than 50 other people, temperatures kept just above freezing and a clear night’s sky, we all lay down for the night in lines around the car park clinging onto the warmth of our bodies.
Ella Johnson, a student at Chester University, and joined with her friends was excited for the night to begin. She said: “I’ve wanted to do something like this for ages. I think it’s a really good opportunity to actually understand the experience and gain some empathy while actually raising some money.”
She added: “Sometimes I think it’s just a pride issue when we’re walking past someone who is homeless and you just think to yourself why should you help them? Deep down we all know that we could help them and especially at Christmas when it’s a time of giving I think we should be doing more.”
CATH offers three core services to anyone in crisis which includes day services, educational learning and accommodation with support. Robert Bisset, chief executive for CATH, told me how the charity plans to spend the money raised.
He said: “All the money we raise will go to running the day services as centre receives very little statuary funding and it relies on the good will of the local community. It costs a lot of money to run the centre as managing people in a close environment is quite staff intensive and obviously we need to look after the safety of the wider community.”
“CATH is very accessible as you can just come in and our trained staff can work with you on accommodation support issues, doctors that allow us to deal with your health, help you with you benefit sanctions, represent you at tribunals and help you with your court situation to help keep you on track.”
Robert has been working for the organisation for more than 15 years and has seen its ups and downs. After CATH lost its contract with the Cheshire West and Chester council back in 2012, it has meant that its staff has been cut from a team of once 40 to now just 10 and with all services offered reduced significantly.
He said: “The centre used to be open 7 days a week, 12 hours a day but that’s now reduced. The situation on the streets is getting significantly worse and will get a lot worse. This is because the council have reduced the contracts, reduced the number of beds and fragmented the service so there aren’t the same front line services for people to access. I have seen numbers of 50 to 60 people sleeping rough in this city before.”
Sue Huizer and Rajez Rajan, sat just next to me on a large piece of cardboard clinging desperately to their flasks. My homeless neighbours told me they were both doctors in Chester and thought it was a worthwhile cause.
She said: “I’ve never done this before but we can’t judge others and we don’t know what’s going to happen in life so we are here to support those in need. We’ve both managed to raise just over £400 together and I definitely think we all need to look at what’s happening around us and support people who are in crisis.”
He said: “I think we need to try and find out better ways to prevent people from becoming homeless and to help out the ones who are already, especially in the winter.”
Less than 50 yards next to the car park stood CATH’s day centre which was open for volunteers to sit out of the cold where warm drinks and toast was served. In the centre I met Stephen Hood who told me after living for 7 months on the streets he managed to get his life back on track. He told how he was married with kids, owned his own home and had own his own business when out of the blue everything went upside down after he found out his partner had been unfaithful.
He said: “After that the thought of everything that had happened I kept in the back of my mind and then physically to the point where I couldn’t work anymore so I lost my job and it was just a downhill spiral.”
Stephen managed to get his life back on track through CATH after they offered him housing where he has been living for 5 years now.
“It took its time but it’s like a stepping stone where you are moving progressively more to the end of the line. You get through the system and you come out through the other end.”
“There are a lot of people out there that had this perceived image that if you had an addiction like drinking , drugs or even gambling then it would lead them to homelessness – but it doesn’t. It can happen to anyone. Any age, sex or background. You can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time and it happened to me and it’s just unfortunate my changed mind set and change of life went the wrong way.”
Just across the dimly lit car park adjacent to my patch for the night, I sat with two women who have attended the sleep out a few years running and feel it is an important cause we should all be involved in.
Vicky Cross, 23, Chester said: “I think they get a little bit disregarded so I feel quite strongly about it.”
Jane Harvey, 52, said: “I felt as if I wanted to do something to maybe appreciate my own warm bed every night and to turn out and show some solidarity. I think this could happen to any of us and it costs more if you look at it from an economic view to put things right afterwards so we need to find better ways to prevent it.”
After a successful night the charity managed to raise more than £10,000 but with more donations still rolling in they hope to reach their yearly target of between £15,000 and £17,000.
If you would like to get involved please visit www.cath.org.uk for more information.
To hear the Stephen’s extraordinary story in full please listen below.