Sleeping out is really rough
Where would you go if you had to sleep rough? Would you sleep in a cemetery, a doorway, a drain, an abandoned building?
People who work with the homeless see and hear some amazing, dark stories – one of the oddest they tell is that desperate people have been known to sleep in cemeteries, even climbing into graves to find shelter and safety.
An Adelaide homeless man was found living in a drain a few years back – they worked out he’d been there for six years.
Last night was the Vinnies’ CEO Sleepout, a fantastic initiative where the nation’s rich and powerful step into the shoes of the nation’s poor and vulnerable for a night.
It’s a great exercise in empathy and awareness raising and I decided to take it to a somewhat illogical conclusion and do my own sleepout, which happily coincided with Adelaide’s wettest June day in six years.
Lessons learned: 1. It’s really hard to find a place outside that feels safe at night. 2. Concrete gets progressively harder as the night gets colder. 3. It’s really lonely. 4. An old, thin blanket does not cut it. 5. Sleeping out makes time slow to an imperceptible crawl. 6. Using the word ‘sleep’ in this context is misleading.
Before hunkering down, I met up with some people who work with the homeless, walking past endless warm windows in the cold wind to help where they can.
The Aboriginal Sobriety Group runs the Mobile Assistance Patrol bus. They ferry Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people around from the streets to the services, from the city to relatives’ houses, from where they find them to wherever they can find a bed.
Major Sumner, a prominent Ngarrindjeri elder who is on the Group’s board, has seen generations of people follow each other onto the street and into the grog. He was one of them, once, 40 years ago, until the Group saved him.
He and MAP Bus program manager Nermin Sabanovic take me on a tour of the hot spots – the city squares, the parklands, the dark streets. They say they see kids as young as five hanging around, they see hungry children next to unconscious adults, they see plenty of violence – and the women can be worse than the men.
On a Saturday night they can’t keep up with the people who need their help to get help - there is no more room at the various inns; the detox centres, the homeless shelters. The only option sometimes is to drop them at the hospital.
Homeless statistics are slippery. The 2006 found there were about 105,000 homeless Australians, with more than 16,000 of those were sleeping rough. They later revised this figure down by almost 40 per cent after a barney over definitions of homelessness. Result of last year’s Census will be out later this year. Most people I speak to think things are getting worse.
About one in three of the homeless are 18 or younger.
Mission Australia’s Youth Beat cover much of the same territory as the MAP Bus, but they work specifically with young people. Team Leader Shaun Stevens said young people – sometimes very young - are often drawn to the bright lights of the nightclub strips. They write themselves off, get drunk or high on whatever they can find, then lurk around in alleyways near the clubs they’re too young to get into.
Youth Beat work closely with Mission Australia’s sobering up unit at Hindmarsh, a small and friendly place that can give people a bed to straighten up in, and hopefully a gentle nudge in the right direction the next morning.
These workers are full of energy and banter, enthusiasm and graveyard humour. They all have their regular clients, their regular routes, and they see the same people come back again and again – and celebrate when some of them stop coming back because they’ve gained a foothold on life.
They work at the odd hours when most of us are unwinding, inside, bellies full of food, wine uncorked, maybe the electric blanket on. It’s the strange double life of the city, the invisible army helping the invisible vulnerable.
So, in some sort of misguided attempt at better understanding the other city, the one I don’t know, I spent the night roughing it (although my original plans were almost scotched by the OH&S people). In the end, I sleep in a plaza at the University of Adelaide (with their permission), a CBD spot where homeless people do occasionally try to sleep. As it happens I’ve slept on the uni lawns before, after a gig at the Unibar. A security guard points out an area where homeless people would sleep if they let them.
I thought a diary format would be an interesting way to describe sleeping out. It started out like this:
12.35am: Tried a few spots. Dirt soft but - unsurprisingly - dirty. Bench comfy but wet. End up in doorway. Have back against a building, the area’s well lit and sheltered. So tired I might actually sleep. This could be OK.
12.40am: This is not OK. I can feel every lump in the ground, my extremities are frozen, I’m wet from earlier in the night, and things are going bump in the night. People walk past every now and then and either they frighten me or I frighten them. This is going to be a long night.
1.40am: Still cold, awake, anxious.
2.40am: Still cold, awake, anxious.
Repeat ad infinitum. Wait for dawn.
6.00am: People are waking up cold and stiff in their corners of the city, to start the cycle again. Some will never break that cycle – many die homeless, cold and alone.
Meanwhile, I’m off to a bright, warm, clean office - and then, home.
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