We’re off out for the night

Gavin Smith, 35, who is actually homeless.
Gavin Smith, 35, who is actually homeless.
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Supportive Sheffielders take to the streets for one night in aid of charity to see what it’s like to be homeless, as Star reporter Rachael Clegg discovers

THE look in Gavin Smith’s eyes is only three missed mortgage payments away.

Sarah Lindley, 31 and her colleague Sinead Hayes, 22, from Irwin Mitchell

Sarah Lindley, 31 and her colleague Sinead Hayes, 22, from Irwin Mitchell

Gavin, from Kimberworth, became homeless eight months ago after a relationship breakdown.

The streets are now his home and his flimsy cardboard fold-outs around his sleeping bag are its walls.

But tonight, at his usual spot in front of the cathedral, Gavin is greeted by a crowd.

Next to Gavin are 12 men and women in sleeping bags, bedding down for the night.

But they’re not homeless.

Among them are musicians, charity workers and Irwin Mitchell legal professionals, here to see what it’s like to sleep rough for the night.

They’re here as part of the Cathedral Archer Project to raise awareness of the fragility of our seemingly secure, sheltered lives and how any of us could end up like Gavin in a matter of weeks.

The brain behind it all is Tracy Viner, who works as a fundraiser for the charity.

“This was my idea in 2007,” she says. “I’ve done every one since 2007 and the idea of experiencing something like this came about when I was working for Water Aid and we had people carry a bucket of water for a mile.

“With this we’re spending one night in front of the cathedral but the people who are doing this have access to toilets and the facilities – that just makes it manageable and easier to persuade companies to send their staff here.”

But spending the night outdoors does help people understand some of the issues homeless people face – never being able to settle, having to keep moving, the sheer coldness and the feeling the day after that you haven’t had a proper night’s rest.

“What some organisations need to understand is that many homeless people are not 100 per cent when they are trying to phone up and sort out serious issues like housing.”

For many homeless people, a solution to not being able to sleep for the cold is drink.

“Many stay up all night drinking and then try and catch some sleep in the daytime,” she said.

“They say homelessness is only three missed mortgage payments away. That’s when you could lose your home. Obviously people have other support methods such as family but you can only impose yourself on people for so long. Losing your home and having to call on family shatters your self-esteem.”

But there are people who have had to resort to living on the street for more complicated reasons too.

“Some of the homeless people we deal with have been kicked out of home because of a parent’s boyfriend or girlfriend or sometimes something has happened to them in childhood that has led them to live like this – there is always something.”

The charity is desperately trying to raise the profile of its cause. “We’re not a cancer charity and we’re not a children’s charity – we tend to get put to the bottom of the list.”

One of the volunteers who’s trying to raise the charity’s profile is Sarah Lindley, 31, who works at Irwin Mitchell. Sarah has slept rough for the Cathedral Archer project once before.

“It’s very overwhelming. Last time it really made me aware of the things we take for granted and made me question the perception most of us have about homeless people. It isn’t anything like what people think it is.

“This year has really brought it home – more so than last year – because there are more street drinkers than last year and we have also witnessed an assault between a girl and a boy walking past. It brought back all the emotions I had from last time.”

And while Sarah has a secure job and home, she’s all too aware that any of us could end up on the streets.

“We’re all one step away from homelessness. And we are just dipping our feet in it. I feel sorry to leave the other homeless people and will feel guilty when I go home and have a bath.

“Irwin Mitchell does a lot to support the Cathedral Archer project. It provides food parcels for the homeless and clothing.”

Her colleague, James Walters, a 27 year-old legal professional, is also bedding down for the night. “I haven’t done this before and we are lucky that we don’t have to do this every night but it is good that we are raising money and awareness for the charity.”

Together, the efforts of Sarah, James and their Irwin Mitchell colleagues, raised £2000 for the Cathedral Archer Project.

Gavin appreciates this support, though he says: “No-one will never know what it’s like to be homeless unless you stick it out for at least seven days, one night isn’t enough. I’m homeless every day of the week.”

Gavin’s belongings are scant. He travels with nothing more than two sleeping bags, a couple of sheets of unfolded cardboard boxes and a few layers of clothing.

“It’s harder in the winter. You just have to keep warm as best you can,” he says, snuggling into his cardboard nest.