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Sleeping rough: a personal perspective

Kate Allen, founder and managing director of Allen Associates, and seven members of her team, took part in the Oxford Big Sleep Out. Here, she gives a very personal account and reflects on homelessness and sleeping rough.

I’ve often wondered what it must be like to sleep rough.  I have a strange ‘fascination’ for the people I see sheltering quietly in doorways and have often wondered about what happened to them to bring them to this place in their lives. 

I have to admit that I also struggle with how I might be able to help them in the moment. Should I offer food or a coffee or just walk past quickly? I recently gave £20 to a young man who looked so much like my son.  I chatted to him and cried when we spoke about his parents.  He was so young and so cold.  I’m not sure it was the right thing to do.  Mostly I just walk past, not wanting to do the wrong thing. 

So, when I was told about the Big Sleep Out in Oxford, I jumped at the chance of getting involved.  I knew it would be a great way to raise awareness and money for an important cause but I did not know how scared I would be beforehand.  I worried about being safe, being cold, being uncomfortable, how I would be able to go to the loo. Stupid things!  

But of course, this well-organised event was very different from a night spent alone on the streets. I had the privilege of sleeping out with seven wonderful colleagues, sharing the experience and bonding as a team – not to mention the company of over 70 other like-minded people who took part.

This was a really well-organised and well-attended event and nothing bad happened. It was a very mild night and we were safe in a gated outdoor centre.  The event was immaculately organised by three remarkable charities working tirelessly to address Oxfordshire’s growing population of rough sleepers – Aspire Oxford, Oxford Homeless Pathways and Connections Floating Support.

Before bed, there were talks, music and video screenings of real people who have struggled with addiction, mental illness and homelessness.  We had music from the infamous Neo Homeless man and the most heart-warming talk from a young man who is in recovery.  It was eye-opening and made me want to do more to help.

I must say, the sleeping bit was hard.  The ground was damp, we had one bit of cardboard each which quickly got wet and my back killed me.  I woke at 5am and could not lie down any longer. I felt cold, dirty, old, and miserable.  Getting in to my own bed after a bath at 7am was heavenly, but tinged with sadness that many don’t have the option to do the same.

Through my limited contact with Yarnton-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, The Ley Community, which is Allen Associates’ charity of the year, and Aspire Oxford, I’ve gained a greater understanding of addiction and mental health issues and the associated problems around this. Many of these people have spent time sleeping rough and have told me just how easy it is for things to spiral out of control, bringing them to a point which they don’t know how to return from.

As an individual, I don’t feel that I can influence politicians to review their policies on the homeless but I can in a very small way do my bit to support charities that make a real difference locally.  My next project is to work more closely with The Ley Community and Aspire Oxford to find out how Allen Associates and other businesses can play a part in helping people to get fit for the world of work and find meaningful employment. Watch this space!

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