Sleep in the Park misses the mark for challenging the realities of homelessness

Homelessness is a rampant problem, worsening throughout the UK. In prevalent cities such as Edinburgh there are an estimated 11,800 people living in unsuitable accommodation, hostels or on the streets. This hidden community has been stigmatised and marginalised through government austerity measures so that even hardworking citizens often cannot afford to survive. This is an unacceptable social catastrophe in a country whose nominal GDP ranks 5th in the world.

The Sleep in the Park charity fundraiser organised by Social Bite is one of a chain of sleep outs to raise awareness and money for tackling homelessness. It is scheduled for December 9, during the bitter Scottish winter and aims eradicate homelessness in Scotland for good. This is an incredible aim, if a smidge utopian, but the fundraiser has sufficient research, money and attention to make a huge difference.

However, the event’s strategy is fundamentally disturbing. An image comes to mind of rows of middle class do-gooders wrapped in multiple blankets and sleeping bags, drinking hot wine whilst watching Liam Gallagher prance around on stage and John Cleese read a bedtime story.

Security guards stroll the perimeter whilst someone complains off-hand about the cold or damp. It sounds like a festival where everyone forgot to bring their tents. It’s all fun and games unless people start thinking this experience is reflective of the lives of the homeless community. The worst that can happen to a participant is a bad night’s sleep and a runny nose.

This compared to the unbearable cold, hunger and misery experienced by the dislocated thousands in their day to day life. Sleep outs are an outdated method, trivialising the reality of people’s lives and disrespecting those with no other choice. Furthermore, no homeless people will participate in the event, which only acts to ostracise them further. This method is both unnecessary and disrespectful.

Sleeping out to raise money reinforces the misinformed belief that homelessness is simply about sleeping rough. This is the visible side to the hidden world of the marginalised, and only touches on one aspect of the reality. Many homeless people don’t sleep on the streets, as figures from the Heriot Watt University crisis report found only 800 of the 11,800 Scottish homeless slept rough, with thousands in unsuitable temporary accommodation, sofa-surfing or living in hostels.

Temporary housing situations are generally unregulated, with the conditions dependent on the whims of the owner. Most have little choice but to stay in whatever accommodation is given to them, with any attempt to leave endangering their access to housing allowance.

Sexual violence, drug abuse and exploitation by landlords are rampant and the life expectancy of an average person during a period of homelessness is estimated to decrease from 81 to 47 years.

The loss of dignity and control, coupled with severely increased dangers is the real homeless experience. The visibility of rough sleepers who we pass on the street everyday are only the beginning of the soul-destroying reality that is hidden all around us. Continued charity fundraisers emphasising the importance of getting people off the streets and into housing over winter are wonderful and should be supported wholeheartedly; the sleep out, however, is not necessary.

This symbolically erasive form of quasi-solidarity is not an effective way of increasing empathy or awareness and should not be used lightly. This is not an attack on the individual’s morality but a deep systemic failing in the use of solidarity as a tool which both belittles and simplifies a problem which is much larger than individual acts of goodwill.

Experience of a disadvantaged situation is not needed for compassion. It is time we stopped trivialising the reality and used different methods for change.


Image: Craig McEwan

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4 Responses

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  1. Kirsten
    Nov 28, 2017 - 05:38 PM

    This article misses the point. The purpose of the event is to raise money for homeless charities. Which it has already done to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.

    • oldcat
      Nov 29, 2017 - 08:58 AM

      Over £2 million so far. This article is the alternative classic middle class thing to do when faced with huge societal problems, sit behind a keyboard and complain about anyone trying to do something while offering nothing.

      The work the Social Bite do in both feeding homeless people, creating community for them and getting them into work to try to end the cycle of homelessness is fantastic. The village that they are building with some of the money raised from this event, again, to try to help people break the cycle is fantastic. They work with homeless charities who, strangely, have none of the problems that the writer of this article has.

      Social Bite have got people talking about homelessness and got those in power to take notice. Sleep-outs are not an equivalent to the experience of a homeless person but none of the organisers have claimed that. This article is little more than a poorly researched “look at all the things I know about homelessness, amn’t I great”. Big pat on the back and congratulations for the author…

  2. A guy
    Dec 06, 2017 - 02:43 PM

    To the Author:
    Take it as a good thing that 9,000 people are willing to leave their ‘middle-class’ life for one night to raise funds for this cause. Fund raising on this scale doesn’t happen without events like this. Will you go on to criticise Comic Relief next? Taking a bath in baked beans doesn’t accurately reflect the reality of famine?

    This is a means to an end – that end being £2 million being raised to help homelessness in Scotland. It doesn’t matter how it happens, as long as it happens.

    Get a grip and get on board.

  3. Stephen
    Dec 10, 2017 - 02:47 PM

    This is a very uninformed article. If the author had researched Sleep in the Park she would have known that alcohol was not permitted at the event so her description of middle-class do-gooders drinking hot wine misses the mark by quite a bit. I participated in the event last night by sleeping in the park. The temperature reached -9C overnight; it was the coldest night of the year so far in Edinburgh.

    It’s easy to sneer. Those of us sleeping out in Princes Street gardens last night were doing what we could to call attention to homelessness in Scotland.

    The total raised by the event now stands at £3.6 million.


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