Peter's Blog

Slept in the Park

Written by Peter Johnston on .

At last a few moments to look back at last weekend and the Sleep in the Park event in Edinburgh. It has been a busy week since and this week in the run up to Christmas looks even more manic, but I just had to get something down here about the night that some of us spent in Princes Street Gardens on 9 December 2017.

With Victoria Kleinsorge, the recently appointed Children's and Youth Worker at South Holburn Parish Church, we decided to put to the young people of both congregations the idea of supporting Sleep in the Park and they all thought it was a good idea, even though not everyone would be able to participate in the actual sleepout in Edinburgh. You need to be 16 or over for that. Nonetheless, five of us decided we were up for the challenge and everyone else helped in the fundraising at both churches.

This has been a great way for folks to work together from both youth groups, and when we registered with Social Bite Fund we had to come up with a name for our team which led to 'shipping' our two congregations (if you don't know what that means, ask a young person!) with the name Ferryburn Fellowship.

A huge thanks to everyone that sponsored us, came along to the afternoon tea or added your donations online. At the time of writing we have raised £1366.30 (with Gift Aid), more than double the initial £600 we targeted.

This money is going to support a plan to eradicate homelessness in Scotland, making available homes and support systems for those who find themselves without a roof over their heads. As Josh Littlejohn, the co-founder of Social Bite and one of the instigators of the event, said, it is surely not beyond the wit and capacity of the Scottish people in the 21st century to find a way to help those who have found themselves sleeping rough. The numbers of people sleeping rough, I have always felt, serves as a kind of barometer to the kind of country we are.

The plan for the Sleep in the Park event was to raise £4 million and to raise awareness of the plight of those sleeping rough. In the last email I received from Josh Littlejohn and Alice Thompson, they indicated that a total of £3.7 million has been raised. Furthermore almost 500 homes have been made available across the central belt with discussions starting in Dundee and Aberdeen. This is good news.

But what about the night itself? Well, the five of us, Victoria, Alexander, Andrew, Katherine and I, set off from Aberdeen with our mats, sleeping bags and many, many layers while ice and snow still covered the ground. We had it on good report that there had been no snow in Edinburgh. We parked up at Ingliston Park & Ride and took the tram (free for those participating) all the way to Princes Street. We were not alone on the tram, there were many others dressed up with their sleeping gear. The look of bemused bewilderment from the tram staff was noted!

As the tram made its way down Princes Street we saw the huge queues of people waiting to get into the park. On joining the queue there was a great atmosphere even though it was bitterly cold. Thankfully, it was dry and there was very little wind. It took a long time for us to get in to the park, tickets and bags checked and then we set off to find a spot to set up our sleeping bags. We were given big orange survival bags as we entered the park, so we found a spot on the east side of the Ross bandstand up the grass slope, covered in tarpaulin, an area where we would be lying at a little bit of an angle, looking up at the night sky. Having marked out our stuff, some of us with Dons scarves!, we set off on the hunt for some food as music was playing on the stage. This hunt for food took some time. There were three trailers providing a variety of food, but the queues were big here too. We wondered why there were not more food trailers available until we found out that those present were donating their proceeds to the event itself, so kudos to those present. With a few vegetarians in our group we headed for the burger stand to get some chips only to find out after waiting a long time that the "fryer was frozen"! This really made me chuckle!

We headed over to the other side and the pizza trailer where we did eventually get food (the queue for this trailer a bit later in the evening was running at 1.5 hours...) including a rather bizarre haggis pizza which I just had to try.

By this time although we had heard all the music and some of Rob Bryden's quips inbetween, we had missed seeing Amy Macdonald and Deacon Blue. But we were in time for seeing the set by Liam Gallagher and then enjoying a bedtime fairy tale from John Cleese. This was as surreal and irreverent as one would expect from the comedy hero. Though, gosh, he was looking older...

We then trekked back to our sleeping area, by now a few hours after we had left it. Things had changed in that time. The survival bags with our sleeping bags inside were covered with frost, as was the tarpaulin on which we had set up our space. Now as we slithered up the slope to reach our spot and then got into our sleeping bags we found we started inevitably to succumb to gravity's lure, slithering back down the hill with any movement we made. We quickly realised that the plan of sleeping up the slope a bit might have a rather serious flaw!

Next to us was a section of the slope that was tarpaulined but not used as a sleeping zone and many decided to use their survival bags as makeshift toboggans, fairly hurtling down the hill dodging the trees with varying degrees of success. This was a real laugh and we started to give out points for style and execution until Health and Safety stepped in... probably not a bad thing in the circumstances.

Did we sleep? Well, I managed to read half the book I was reading overnight. I sometimes stopped and lay on my back, hat firmly pulled down over my ears and with the sleeping bag all the way up past my nose, just looking up at the tree that was rooted a little below us on the slope. I watched the stars as they made their way through the branches of the tree, an indicator of time passing slowly by. Inside our sleeping bags we were cosy, but it got colder and colder outside. Some of us dozed a little, perhaps for 20 or 30 minutes before waking and stirring, slithering down a little, trying to pull ourselves back up. There was not a lot of restful sleep.

Come 5 a.m. we were all awake and chatting, pondering how long to stay. Katherine turned to me and said, "There's a guy next to me who wasn't there before!" He had slithered all the way down the slope from further up the hill. At 5.20 a.m. we got up. Everything was completely covered in frost now. Trying to roll up the sleeping bags, covered in ice, with bare hands was excruciating. My hands froze up trying to squeeze the sleeping bags into their sacks. It was a real eye opener. By this time the temperature was down to around -6 C. Cold, and ready for something warm to drink and eat, we were back on the tram which was, the tram inspector noted, far more busy than was usual for a Sunday morning at 6 a.m. Then back to the car and we headed home. On the way back home the outside temperature on the car varied from -6 to -9 C. It had indeed been a very cold night.

I was asked by Andrew what three words came to mind from participating in Sleep in the Park and the three that are most obvious are: cold, humbling and hopeful.

It truly was a humbling experience to share in one of the coldest nights in Scotland with those who also would have been sleeping out that night, not by choice. It was especially humbling because we knew we had a warm car to escape to and later in the day beds to sink into at home. We had had little sleep and yet at 5 a.m. there was no sense of wanting to stay tucked up in our sleeping bags. For someone who is not a morning person, this really got over how grim it is to be sleeping rough. There is no sense of enjoying a lie-in for an extra ten minutes after hitting the snooze button. As the night progressed, and as the temperature dipped ever more despite our sleeping bags, many layers of clothes, insulating mats and survival bags, we were starting to feel the cold penetrating. The thought of spending the rest of the day also on the street, never getting properly warmed up, was revealing.

But it was also a hopeful event because you saw in the camaraderie of 8,000 people willing to give of their time and effort a true solidarity with those in need of help. It is indeed not beyond our wit and capacity as a country to do more to assist those who find themselves in the dire circumstances of homelessness. Homelessness brings with it a spiral of ripple effects that make getting back into full inclusion within society so much more difficult. Try finding a job, for instance, if you do not have an address or a bank account. It inevitably reminded me of how Jesus also worked in his own culture to bring people who found themselves excluded - sometimes because of choices they had made in the past, but more often because life had simply overwhelmed them - back into community.

I really hope for the young folks who joined me on this trip that this was also for them an eye-opening and worthwhile night: doing something to help others, gaining more empathy for the plight of those sleeping rough, and working together to make a difference. Thanks again to all of you who supported us.