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Scotland shows its heart at Sleep in the Park

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Credit: Polly Talbot

So, there I was, lying under umpteen layers of clothes with just my nose sticking out of the sleeping bag, watching my breath curling upwards like steam.  Across a small, separating rope I could see Sir Chris Hoy going about his bedtime routine.

Over there was Dougie Vipond exchanging pleasantries with a church leader from Edinburgh before heading to his own survival sack for the night.

And there, the man of the hour, Social Bite founder Josh Littlejohn, giving interview after interview to tv cameras and journalists recording his every word on iPhones.

Rewind to 7pm Saturday night and I was one of thousands of people queuing outside Princes Street Gardens, clutching roll mats and sleeping bags, waiting to gain entry to the Sleep in the Park event.

The mood in the queue was jolly and determined and, once inside the park, we were each handed what can only be described as a bright orange body bag.  Hastily stuffing our sleeping bags and extra layers for the night therein we found a suitable spot for dossing down amidst the sea of other day-glo survival sacks and headed off to the concert.

Musically we were treated to the delights of Frightened Rabbit, Deacon Blue, Amy MacDonald and of course, Liam Gallagher, all with stripped back acoustic sets more reminiscent of a busker on the street than of a sell-out concert.

Sir Bob Geldof, naturally, was full of inspirational words while Rob Brydon compered with his usual silliness. Importantly, we also heard from both Social Bite workers and individuals they had helped to re-home, rehabilitate, and secure work for.

The audience cheered loudly as each of those who had once been on the streets told their stories of redemption, of managing to get back on their feet after facing the bleakest of situations.  Our chilly hearts were warmed.

Credit: JEFF HOLMES/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

And then, the man whose brain child this whole event had been, Josh Littlejohn, took to the stage to briefly explain how the small Social Bite sandwich shop on Rose Street had developed into one of the leading charities for tackling homelessness in Scotland.

Announcing to the crowd that through the combined efforts of us individuals and various corporate pledges, Sleep in The Park had raised £3.6 million, including a single anonymous donation of £500,000 that had been received the day of the event itself.

Looking to the future, Littlejohn also mentioned that plans were already underway to complete 11 specially designed houses in the Social Bite village in Granton.  And, with the Scottish Government on board and several important housing associations in the Central belt also making pledges, there would be almost 500 properties available for occupation by homeless individuals within the next few months.  For a man so young, Mr Littlejohn was proving to have achieved much for this small charity of only five years of age.

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Credit: Mrmanwhich

Liam Gallagher followed on stage and his crowd-pleasing set ended with us all singing Wonderwall in unison before John Cleese settled us back down again with an altogether outrageous but painfully funny bedtime story.

Then it was to head back to our accommodation for the night – two sleeping bags the orange body bag and a rucksack for a pillow. The night was thankfully dry but temperatures dropped to -6 degrees and we snatched sleep here and there until 6am when the wake up call sounded.

The night before the event I was asked by a well-meaning friend, how can homelessness be eradicated when it is a systemic problem?  Why would people sleeping outside for one night as part of a winter festival change anything for those people sleeping on the street day in, day out?

On the one hand, I understood the criticisms and queries of the Sleep in the Park methods.  But then, having been there, I can say that the atmosphere was one of quiet determination.  There was no festival vibe (the banning of alcohol perhaps helped with that); rather the realisation that all of us were there because we believed that something could and should be done.

The fact that people were talking about Sleep In The Park, in the words of Littlejohn, put the issue of homelessness into razor sharp focus for the rest of the country.  Yes, we were sleeping out for one night.  Yes, we had homes to go to.  But we raised £3.6 million by doing it and collectively sent a message to those living on the streets right now that we care and that we want a solution to this problem as much as they do.

Homelessness is undoubtedly a recurring issue and people will always lose jobs, be evicted from their homes, fall into addiction, be bumped around in a creaking care system.

However, instead of finding themselves losing their footing on the ladder of society and falling into an abyss, charities like Social Bite will be there with the very last safety net for them, ensuring that no one will ever have to sleep rough on the street again.

Again, in the words of Littlejohn, the numbers are manageable – 11,000 people are currently defined as homeless, sleeping in temporary accommodation or shelters or sleeping rough;  every night roughly 281 people sleep out on the streets of Scotland.  For a country as wealthy, inventive and warm-heated as ours, this situation can be sorted, dealt with and homelessness could be eradicated by 2020.

Josh Littlejohn

Credit: BusinessInsider

After this event, people were hopefully more aware of the individual sitting by the train station asking for money, or the man with the dog and the cardboard on the High Street. Perhaps, due to the media coverage of the event and the different opinions and discussions which resulted, people momentarily thought twice before walking past.

Hopefully they felt encouraged to ask them their story or to buy them a coffee and a sandwich.  It’s through raised awareness like this and collective effort from all of us in Scotland, individuals and corporations alike, that Scotland can use its big heart to reach the attainable goal of eradicating homelessness for good.

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