On Monday 17th of October, our Principal Jan spent the night sleeping rough in Christchurch Meadow as part of CEOSleepout, an initiative bringing local community leaders together to raise awareness and money to combat homelessness and poverty in the UK.
Last week, I spent the night in Christchurch Meadow with 20 people, including the former President of St John’s, Maggie Snowling; St Hilda’s Principal Sarah Springman; and the Warden of Merton College and the soon-to-be Vice Chancellor of the University, Irene Tracey.
I was there for CEO Sleepout, an initiative in which I breezily agreed to participate back in August, when the grass was parched and winter seemed a world away.
Now, I can understand why you might be sceptical as to the value of a group of highly privileged people sleeping rough for the night – my daughter certainly was. To be perfectly honest with you, I think she had a point: it did feel strange to be there in my warm sleeping bag, gazing up at the stars, secure in the knowledge that in the morning I would return to a warm home.
So why did I do it? I felt that I needed to show solidarity. Homelessness is a huge and growing problem in Oxford, and around the country. I want to raise awareness of a group of people who are so overlooked, who have to sleep out night after night, and to put a few more pounds in the coffers of the Oxfordshire Homeless Movement which does brilliant work to assist them.
I knew from the outset that, while my experience would be a poor facsimile of rough sleeping, it was bound to be memorable. What I hadn’t counted on was how insightful it would prove to be.
It was a beautiful evening as I set out from Somerville with my two supermarket shopping bags of belongings. Inside, I had everything a well-off member of society needs to stay warm and comfortable for a night under the stars – everything that rough sleepers lack. I had my warm gloves, my down coat, the expensive sleeping bag and inflatable camping mat I borrowed from my still-sceptical daughter. I also had the added security of bunking down for the night with a group of friends – free from the fear of violence and abuse, or the theft of my belongings, that must be ever-present while sleeping on the streets. I had a clean and warm toilet available to me, which I could use in the middle of the night, wash my hands and feel civilised, rather than having to use the street.
With every one of these small decisions, these small realisations, I better understood the difficult lives of the homeless, and how many privileges I take for granted every day.
It was misty in the morning. The sounds of students drifted across the field as they ran off for their rowing practice, getting back to the sport they love after a long summer away from Oxford or learning the trade for the first time.
It felt a bit mad. There we were: four women, privileged heads of house, watching students who enjoy the privilege of an Oxford education enjoing themselves, while somewhere else in Oxford many people were waking up from a night of rough sleeping in almost unimaginably different circumstances, with blankets and clothes sodden from the morning dew with nowhere to dry them.
I am under no illusions. I can’t really imagine what it must be like to rough sleep night after night, to lack the safety and security and dignity of a roof over your head. We have raised thousands of pounds this year, and that is why I will be signing up for CEO Sleepout again: not to signal virtue, but to raise money and try to make a real difference.
You can see everyone who took part in this year’s sleepout and the money they have raised on the Oxford CEO Sleepout page.
If you would like to know more about the work of Oxfordshire Homelessness Movement, please visit https://www.oxfordshirehomelessmovement.org