We were met and guided from there by a cheery CentrePoint crew to a specially prepared site adjacent to the Thames (loaned by property developer Knight Dragon), with an incredible view of the O2 and the glittering towers of corporate banks in Canary Wharf. This site will be developed to create 13,000 new homes, so somewhat ironic considering our common purpose that night, with another 950 souls, was to raise awareness of the plight of the young London homeless.
Once checked in and tagged festival-style, we were then shown to our sleeping quarters. The site comprised of four enormous marquees, placed to form a central compound with a sound stage and screen, and within each marquee the interior had been set out to sleep approximately 250 people. Four long rows of what appeared to be giant potato sacks, branded with the SleepOut logo, were laid out on the floor on top of a base layer of plastic sheeting and cardboard. Topped off with a tote of goodies including toothpaste, an energy bar and hand warmers – those were destined for my socks later on!
Once we had tucked our sleeping bags into our potato sacks (or sleep-suit in my case, which was more akin to a weird hybrid of a polar explorer and a khaki yeti) we went in search of food and a hot drink. Behind the marquees, with the view of the Thames (and a line of portaloos), we followed our noses towards another cluster of steaming tents – khaki in this case as they were a mobile catering unit from RAF Wittering. These heroes amply fed a large line of rosy cheeked SleepOuters, with piping hot delicious bowls of chicken or veg curry or hearty beef stew with dumplings.
Once fed and watered we joined a gathering throng in the central compound where we were entertained by the brilliant wit of street poet, Hussain Manawer, encouraged to keep ourselves warm in a mass karaoke/dance-off session and listened to several CentrePoint ambassadors relate some of their own personal stories and how the money we were raising would make such a positive impact in helping young vulnerable people off the streets. Amongst the stamping feet was Tim Farron, fresh from a BBC Question Time session and a couple of Olympic gold medallists. To make sure all SleepOuters were finally ready for bed we were read a bed-time story by panto veteran Christopher Biggins! A screen kept us constantly updated on the total money being raised and before 11pm we had reached a £400k landmark – a brilliant and record-breaking total for CentrePoint.
Being not a regular on the festival calendar and the prospect of getting to sleep that night, along with nearly a thousand other noisy people, on the frozen hard ground, I wasn’t holding out much hope but this was just a minor glimpse into the reality that too many suffer on our city streets – and they hadn’t been fed well, entertained and were being kept secure in a protected space. This event was never meant to truly replicate what being homeless really means but we were all glad the next morning, woken at 5.30am – again fed by the fantastic efforts of the RAF - that we were heading back to a kinder reality and a hot shower.