December 12th

These blog posts are thinning out to say the least, partly because I'm busy, and partly because I've already said a lot of things I wanted to. Which is better, repeating yourself endlessly, or staying silent once you've said your piece?

Quote of the Week

  • "This house has been far out at sea all night, |The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills, |Winds stampeding the fields under the window |Floundering black astride and blinding wet |Till day rose; then under an orange sky |The hills had new places, and wind wielded |Blade-light, luminous black and emerald, |Flexing like the lens of a mad eye." - Ted Hughes, Wind

Sunday, 30 May 2010

The SLEEP OUT (Part 2)

10pm in Leicester town square, and the sun had fully set. As temperatures fell and a chill wind picked up, most of us hunkered down in our sleeping bags and thought of getting some warm food in the McD's next door. Conversation began to wane, although a small group remained awake playing frisbee or catch rugby.

Midnight came, and it got even colder. We started to realise just how ineffective our gear was - the wind was going straight through my jeans, and my built-for-the-tropics sleeping bag wasn't really helping. Enter the Salvation Army, run by the nicest old couple you will ever meet. They started distributing blankets (oddly with Australian Airlines logos), then brought groups of us to their main building for some free food - tasty, tasty food. It reminded me of going for dinner at an uncle's place, and they made it really quite difficult for us to leave. My little eating group was an odd bunch - we had a Canadian version of Gok Wan, a girl who was organising for the event, and a postgrad who was technically a year below me. Interesting banter ensued as we munched down on restaurant-quality shepherd's pie.

It was 1am when our group headed back to the cardboard town. Things had become substantially better and our spirits were up when a drizzle began. We scurried for the cover of a nearby shop... and were told by the organisers that we weren't allowed to lean against the shop windows!

Now, this is apparently what happened - when HOMED contacted Leicester City Council about the event, the LCC designated an area in which we were allowed to sleep - and apparently, this area was literally, an open space with no shade, and no contact with any walls save for that of the Clock Tower - because somehow the tiny tower can magically shade a hundred people from the rain.

Fortunately, it wasn't heavy - and the waterproof gear that I'd brought with me finally proved its worth. We sat it out with a few umbrellas, and I snuggled under the now-warm sleeping bag to get a bit of sleep.

Roughly 1.30am - I woke up to the image of a weathered old man standing over us, saying something about God to one of the students - and since I'm not going into the God argument again, I decide to old my tongue. From what I overheard, he believed that by doing good things such as sleeping out for charity, we were carrying out God's work. I'll leave the reader to mull that one over.

After the God discussion, I spoke to him and it turned out that he was kicked out by family because of a drinking problem. Having nowhere to go and no money to pay fo shelter, he took to the streets clutching a 2-litre bottle of cheap beer, and that's how we found him.What strikes me is that he'd been given medical treatment (I think it was Naltrexone), ran out of it, and relapsed before he could get more - and when you're trying to rebuild your life, one bad day can sweep away everything you've accomplished. The fact that this man could buy 2 litres of alcohol with what money he had probably didn't help either.

At some point in the night (I can't tell exactly when), we were joined by two more homeless people who were looking for a place to sleep. All I know is that there were suddenly two homeless people with us when there weren't any before. They had apparently been looking for shelter and were turned away because everything was full, and therefore had wandered around till they found us. Ironic really that they were trying to find shelter, while we decided to leave ours for a night.

Having been woken up by the religious alcoholic, I got up and spoke to Carl, the man I mentioned in Part 1. He had been standing guard over us since the night started at 6, and had literally not sat down or rested in any form for 8 hours...

To be continued.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The SLEEP OUT (Part 1)

All right, the post you've been waiting for. On May 11th, a not-quite summer evening, I joined about eighty other students on the streets in Leicester for twelve hours, hosted and organised by student group HOMED.

The first question you would probably ask is "why?!" Three reasons I can think of: first of all, it was to raise money and awareness of the homeless. Secondly, I personally wanted to know how it felt to be on the streets. And thirdly...well, when would I ever get another chance to do something as brilliant, and as mad, as this?

No matter the reasons, that night was something more to me than an impulsive moment. I think I've reached a point where I no longer want to just accumulate knowlege - I want to use my time and abilities to do something useful.

In either case, everything kicked off at 5.30pm at the university, where we all gathered with sleeping bags and other kit. After some handing out of food items and mingling, we wandered off to the clock tower, which was conveniently stocked with cardboard sheets. There was a fair number of other people around, including some people from the Salvation Army and Action Homeless, the charity for which we were collecting the money. Also on site was a big man called Carl, who had been homeless and was at the time being housed by Action Homeless.

Let me tell you, if you're ever out on a cold street, cardboard is essential - not to keep you clean (let's admit it, you have bigger things to worry about when you're on a street), but to keep you warm - the concrete pavement is an excellent conductor and will happily absorb your precious body heat, even if you're wrapped up. Dry cardboard, no matter how grungy or thin, will insulate you from the pavement and allow your body heat to build up in that sleeping bag.

Within minutes, a brown field of overlapping cardboard sheets sprang out around the clock tower, and patches of friends had mushroomed up in their own little groups, chatting or playing cards. I planted myself among a few acquaintences and listened as the CEO of Action Homeless gave us some information on what exactly they did, and how the money we raised was going to be spent.

It turns out that the UK has quite a decent support system for the homeless. There are two groups of homeless in Leicester - the ones who want to be, and therefore reject help, and those who don't want to be, but don't have access to help. People from the latter group tend to be out on the streets for about a week before being picked up and provided accomodation in a hostel (A week is nothing really in the tropics, but over here a week in winter is quite literally deadly if you aren't properly clothed). As soon as is reasonable, they get moved out of the hostels into semi-permanet housing, which is provided by Action Homeless and paid for by the government. The challenge after that is to bring these people back to their normal lives - the two major barriers are the lack of available accomodation, and the people becoming habituated in their hostels. Of course, then the people need to deal with whatever reason they were homeless in the first place, mostly revolving around too much drink, too little work, and relationships that go sideways.

It was about 7pm, and still bright, when we'd finished discussing the ins and outs of everything. The mayor of Leicester appeared, fully kitted up with a man-in-black bodyguard, and stayed chatting with us for about an hour, even after the cameraman stopped taking pictures. I didn't speak to him, but he seemed like a nice guy. The best way for me to describe him was Michael Caine wearing a graduation robe and some serious neck bling.

We got quite a lot of attention from shoppers and other passers-by until it started getting dark around 9pm. As the crowd thinned out, tedium started to set in until a frisbee and rugby ball appeared, both of which would remain on scene for the better part of the night. Still, it made me wonder what exactly the homeless do for fun - and the answer is, not much. Alone on these streets, you rapidly become invisible.

All was well until the temperature started dropping...

To be continued.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Oscillation

Recent discussions with a good friend have brought me back to a very old quote that I put up:

"A reasonable man adapts himself to his environment. An unreasonable man persists in attempting to adapt his environment to suit himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." - George Bernard Shaw
The quote is self-explanatory - to adapt oneself is to lay down one's values, and therefore to keep doing things the same way. For someone to keep fighting for what they believe in, they must keep believing, especially when the environment doesn't let them believe. That's the point when inaction tips over into activity, and people start changing the environment to accomodate themselves.

Yet, constant activity isn't possible - it requires a very manic kind of person to struggle on against improbable odds, and the odds are indeed improbable. The very human desire for improvement is matched by an equally human desire to be content with these improvements. We balance on a see-saw of these two, and finally when one side of the board is grounded for too long, we tip it back up, until our side of the board starts coming back down again.

Now, everyone exists in this state. But some people will spend most of their time in the relaxed, happy side of the board. These are the ones who are the happiest, though certainly not the most productive. A few will be constantly pushing for more, tipping the see-saw towards change. They will never truly be happy with themselves, even though people will admire their sacrifice. And a very small, elite group will have got it just right, so that the see-saw is perfectly balanced between improvement and contentedness - don't we hate them for it.