24 hours on Weston-super-Mare's streets: The 'nightmare' reality of being homeless
PUBLISHED: 09:03 14 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:07 14 July 2017
Some people are forced to sleep rough on the streets of Weston-super-Mare with only a bag of essentials and a blanket to tide them over. Homelessness is an issue which prompts a wide range of reactions, from kindness and empathy to pity and disgust. Reporter Eleanor Young abandoned her home and belongings to put herself in a rough sleeper’s shoes for the night.
Before I took on this challenge I had no idea what to expect – but I wanted explore how people would react to me, speak to me and treat me if they spotted me with a sleeping bag in my hands and a bag on my back.
I am lucky to have had a fortunate upbringing, with supportive and loving parents and siblings. I always had a roof over my head and a meal on the table.
So when I decided to abandon all that for 24 hours and put myself in alien circumstances, I was not really sure what to expect.
I teamed up with Weston charity Somewhere To Go (STG), based in The Boulevard, and took to the streets with two of its volunteers.
Upon my arrival at STG, I was greeted by volunteers Brian and Henry, who would be joining me. The duo were quick to make me feel welcome as I chatted with them, another volunteer and a few service users.
I spoke with a number of them about how they had found themselves being homeless, and learned their stories were not what I had expected.
In my experience, people see a homeless person and assume drugs or alcohol have played roles in their situation, but the people I spoke to had fallen on tough times after losing jobs or seeing marriages fail.
I experienced STG the same away a client would; I was talked through the registration process and then offered breakfast and a hot drink.
People who visit STG are able to talk to representatives from partner organisations – such as the YMCA and the Citizens Advice Bureau – use the wash facilities and eat a hot meal.
Day centre manager Joan Eales said: “Regularly we have around 40 to 60 people visiting us. We initially deal with their practical needs like providing food and water.
“We only charge a pound for a two-course lunch and during that time we try to get to know them and build those relationships. We can then identify how we can better help them.”
Some 50 people visited during my stay, with 17 describing themselves as rough sleepers.
The beginning of my homeless 24 hours had gone smoothly.
I had enjoyed a nutritious meal and met new people... but now it was time for the tougher part of the challenge.
We hoisted our backpacks and took to the streets, and almost immediately I could feel eyes upon us.
Some people would not make eye contact at all, while others would look us up and down, note our scruffy appearance and sleeping bags and look away. We settled on the grass area on Alexandra Parade and it was soon clear one of the most difficult things to get used to was how the day dragged.
Boredom had set in. We had spent a lot of time chatting, and Brian had napped, but we were mainly watching the world go by.
Two street wardens stopped for a short chat. They asked us how we were doing and, while they were very polite, I could not help but tense up a little at their presence and wonder what they thought of us.
Shortly after they left we decided we should move on and began another short walk around Weston’s Town Centre and along the seafront.
Grove Park proved the perfect spot to kill a few hours by ‘people watching’. From a group of teenagers listening to some questionable music to a puppy chasing pigeons, this proved one of the most entertaining parts of our day.
As the day was drawing to a close it grew quieter. Dog walkers strolled past and a group of youths settled under the bandstand to gossip and listen to music. It was in this park I felt most comfortable. The teenagers did not bat an eyelid at us and the dog owners were too busy playing fetch.
It dawned on me how Weston’s rough sleepers are not only deprived of food and shelter but also basic wash facilities.
Weston’s only public toilets are paid ones, and while 20p is not a lot to me, it is a great deal to someone without a penny to their name.
We decided to head to Tesco, in Station Road, to use the toilet and to use what little money we had to buy a snack.
I had aimed not to spend any money at all during my 24 hours, but by 8pm all of our stomachs were growling.
However I have never felt so uncomfortable in my life – from the moment we stepped through the supermarket door, I could feel people staring at us and I felt sick. No-one deserves to be treated so negatively or stigmatised on the basis of such a superficial snap judgement.
The sun was beginning to set and it was time for the toughest part of the 24 hours – bedding down for the night.
We settled in Weston’s seafront shelters outside the sand sculpture festival.
We knew settling in High Street would make us more vulnerable and see us moved along, while the seafront offered a quieter setting. Since it was quite a warm night, it seemed perfect.
To say this was the most uncomfortable night’s sleep I have ever experienced would be an understatement.
The benches offered little cushioning for our aching muscles and the floor was not much better.
As if sleeping on a hard wooden bench could not get any worse, imagine people walking, running and cycling past every few minutes.
It was here, I noticed, that people stared the most. I don’t think a single person walked by without a long glance at us huddled in our sleeping bags.
As morning approached it was clear I was not going to get any sleep. Temperatures took a nosedive and I was shivering in my sleeping bag.
It was pitch black and the lights along the seafront had dimmed, but the cold had made it difficult to switch off.
If I were alone, I would have felt vulnerable and, even though I felt safer with Brian and Henry around, I still worried someone would run off with our bags.
The thought of living this nightmare day in, day out was terrifying.
After hours of tossing and turning I managed two to three hours of broken sleep.
The temperature was still quite low and I found myself anxious to return to my normal routine.
With no water left, no food and the threat of rain imminent, we decided it was time to pack up and move on.
With my 24 hours almost up, I thanked my companions with a cup of coffee in the Mercury office.
While I wanted to see the day out without a slip-up, the preceding 22 hours had been an emotionally draining adventure and a cup of tea helped see us through to the end.
After a quick recharge, Henry, Brian and I returned to Grove Park to pass the remainder of our time.
I could really appreciate the struggles a rough sleeper has to endure and – however they end up in that situation – they deserve respect for being capable of living through what I could only describe as hell every day.
I was shocked at how people looked at us and reacted to us, which was a new experience for me.
The only acts of kindness shown to us were from people in a similar situation to our own, but not once did someone, other than a single street warden, ask how we were.
It was an emotional 24 hours and it really hit home how many people fall on hard times and are forced to sleep rough.
SOMEWHERE TO GO
STG has been supporting people in hard times for almost 20 years.
The service opens its doors every Monday, Wednesday and Friday where a team of dedicated volunteers offer a friendly face to some of Weston’s most vulnerable people.
The charity is funded mainly through donations but has received some support from North Somerset Council and the Diocese of Bath and Wells.
Joan Eales said she had around 35 ‘wonderful’ volunteers who help out.
She added: “We were set up to help people who are sleeping rough, but now we have a much larger number of homeless people than we used to and we have a lot of people sofa surfing but we help any disadvantaged and vulnerable adult who comes in.
“A whole range of different reasons have brought people to us. The more obvious reasons are the drugs, alcohol and mental health issues. We have some people who come to us because they are socially isolated if they don’t so it helps to keep them connected to other people.”
Joan has been at STG for 13 years and said it has been a ‘privilege’ to be able to care for people in need.
She added: “The people of Weston have supported us valiantly and have been absolutely wonderful.”
To make a donation or find out more, visit www.somewheretogo.org.uk