6th Dec, 2016

FEATURE: What's it really like to spend a night on the streets? St Basils flies the flag to prevent youth homelessness

Shaun Reynolds 10th May, 2016 Updated: 21st Oct, 2016

THE ANNUAL Solihull Sleep Out event in aid of St Basil’s – the charity which fights to prevent youth homelessness in the borough – is a real eye opener for anyone taking part.

With Solihull having a higher homeless rate per 1,000 people than London, Observer reporter Shaun Reynolds spent the night on the streets to find out more about the charity, its work, and experience first-hand what it’s like to be homeless.

What do you pack for a night on the streets? I got home from the office and packed my bag thinking what do I actually need for a night on the streets – do I need a toothbrush, spare shoes, a shirt? It was all very odd.

I arrived at a car park on Lode Lane where the St Basil’s Sleepout was taking place and it soon hit me this place was ‘home’ – a far cry from the warm comfort I’m used to in my house.

I was paired up with Hollie – who I regard as the most polite, well mannered and down to earth person I have ever met in my life.

With her help, we swiftly put together a couple of cardboard boxes, taped them together to prevent any draft from entering and simply waited until the time came to get some shut eye – something which lacked quantity as I’m sure you can imagine.

Hollie’s story is remarkable, jaw-dropping, unbelievable – all the clich├ęs you can think of but more.

Now 21, Hollie was first made homeless when she was 19 while living in Manchester – she was alone in an unfamiliar city hundreds of miles away from her home in Solihull.

After finding temporary accommodation in Manchester for three weeks, an experience she described as terrifying, Hollie decided to move back into her parents home – only to discover her bedroom had been dismantled and belongings stored away.

She told me she slept on park benches and bravely added that she considered ending it all at one point.

However her story now is somewhat remarkable.

Hollie was offered accommodation in a St Basil’s youth hostel and has since performed alongside professional opera singers and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra after attending a workshop focused on arts.

She has completed a life skills course, received a qualification in budgeting and has become a member of the National Youth Reference Group (NYRG).

To add to that, Hollie opened parliament with a speech she had written on behalf of the NYRG and only returned from a residential trip in the Lake District days before the Sleep Out event.

With university on the horizon, Hollie told me she already has visions of establishing her own art company and owes everything to St Basil’s.

I found myself surrounded by inspiring people.

A prize was awarded to the group that designed the most creative ‘home’ to stay in for the night.

The award went to Sean Faith and his son William who created a tank-based shelter to translate their passion for Arsenal FC.

Sean said: “This is the first Sleep Out I’ve done for St Basil’s but I used to be a resident at one of their youth hostel’s 12 years ago and that’s where my son was born.

“When I was younger I was in a very bad way and St Basil’s has had a positive impact on my life – if it wasn’t for them there’s every chance I’d still be on the streets now.

“Since the birth of my son I’ve joined the army and now run my own homeless project where I receive donations of clothes and go to larger projects to distribute them.

“My son is my best mate, it’s a simple as that.”

Barry Hodge, head of fundraising and communications at St Basil’s charity – who last week ran seven marathons in seven days to raise funds – has worked for the charity for just under a year.

He said: “St Basils is a charity which helps 16-25 year olds and last week marked the second Solihull Sleepout event.

“The money raised will stay in Solihull and help to break the cycle of homelessness – so money will be invested in education, providing a home and tackling mental health issues.

“I am stunned by the amount of people that take part, it’s incredible as people don’t have to do it but I think the idea of sleeping homeless is never considered by people which is why the public is willing to step into someone else’s shoes for one night.”

Personally, I managed about 20 minutes’ sleep all night.

I had the luxury of jumping on a train at 6am and heading back home to crash into bed for three hours on Saturday morning, but imagine if I never had a home.

One thing’s for sure, it would’ve been impossible to get sleep during the day – had I been faced with the challenge for a week, let alone as a way of life, it would’ve proved draining.

Hollie’s story will stay with me forever.

Prior to my night on the streets I’d often do my best to avoid contact with the homeless, but I can’t help but offer a greeting at absolute minimum now after having the smallest of experiences as to what they go through.

St Basil’s run their Sleepout events regularly, and whilst you may sacrifice that one night down the local, I’d advise everyone to take part and raise a few quid too.

Visit: http://www.stbasils.org.uk/sleepout to find out hoe you can get involved or help.