The annual sponsored sleepout took place on the evening of April 8th, to raise money for local homeless charities and the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service. Young people from Romford, Brentwood, Lexden, Colchester, Canning Town, Rochford, Epping, and Upminster took part, sleeping outside in just a sleeping bag with a cardboard box to lie on.
At Romford, parish priest Fr Dominic Howarth led by example, as did Fr Paschal Uche, who joined St Teresa’s Confirmation group at Lexden. At Walsingham House at Abbotswick, the youth team all slept on the patio. Coordinator of Caritas Diocese of Brentwood Siân Thomas says: “The idea is to gain a better understanding of how it feels for those sleeping rough throughout the Diocese while raising funds for local homeless charities. We asked people to sleep in their own gardens or outside spaces. No tents were allowed whatever the weather.”
Several parishes showed the film A Street Cat Named Bob (the true story of a homeless man and his cat) while those who gathered at Romford Parish also listened to a talk by Phyl McLaren from Basildon Churches Together. Her group works with the Basildon Emergency Night Shelter to provide a safe, comfortable place for homeless and vulnerable people to get an evening meal, a change of clothes, and fellowship.
Phyl shared her own experience of homelessness and talked about the work that is done in Basildon. “Rough sleepers are frequently physically and verbally attacked, just because they are seen as ‘different’. They have their belongings stolen or destroyed because they are vulnerable.”
Siân Thomas herself attended the talk and film at Romford Parish before sleeping outside in her own garden. It proved an eye-opening experience. “It had rained earlier and the ground was wet. Fortunately, the cardboard box I was sleeping on was dry but it wouldn’t have been for someone who was homeless. I didn’t sleep much as it was freezing that night but I had a toilet that I could access nearby and I felt safe in my own garden. My biggest threat was a neighbourhood fox. But how must it feel to be outside in an unknown, unsafe location? I wouldn’t want to repeat it night after night.”
Often, she says, people are put into organised shelters and are then threatened by others and prefer to go back out on the streets. “I had members of my family checking on how I was the next day, while others had a fire, with coffee and doughnuts brought by supporters on the night. People sleeping rough don’t have that – they don’t have that family support.”
For Fr Paschal being in a group made it a wonderful event, despite his “really cold feet”. “There were 22 of us and we were happy to be together, playing games and watching the film – the shared experience really brought the Confirmation group together. And although we didn’t get much sleep there were no long faces. I wished I had worn extra socks but then I realised it brought it closer to reality for people who don’t have extra socks to wear.”
Different parishes raised money for charities local to them. The Romford sleepers, for example, managed to raise £2,750 for Caritas Ukraine and homelessness charity Caritas Anchor House. After the sleepout, Fr Dominic tweeted: “A clear and freezing dawn breaks and the group huddle in their sleeping bags. The words they most often use for the night just passed are “cold” and “long”. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be facing a day on the streets and many more nights sleeping outside.”