In the first of a series of features on the plight of Burnley’s homeless, reporter John Deehan spent 24 hours out on the town’s streets experiencing first hand what it is like to live rough. Here is his account...
One night? Easy.
When I volunteered to help 20-year-old Kieran Macdonald spend 24 hours on the streets of Burnley in aid of homeless charity Shelter, ‘easy’ is exactly what I thought.
I’ve wandered home to Harle Syke from town following a night out countless times; I’ve spent many a sleepless night at festivals. Spending just one night on the streets of Burnley for charity would be a walk in the park. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It would have been easy to pack this piece with statistics – but to be honest, after spending considerable time trawling through papers, leaflets and websites, quantifying an issue with so many differing variables is practically impossible. The fact of the matter is that even in 2015, homelessness is a real problem, not just across the UK, but right here on our doorstep. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I have walked past a person sleeping rough on the street, refusing to even acknowledge their existence. Eyes straight ahead; hearing turned right down; maybe a cursory glance down at my phone at a message that doesn’t exist. I, like so many, ‘look’ at somebody in that situation and automatically place the blame squarely at their feet. Probably because it makes it easier to deal with.
Fortunately there are people out there attempting to break down these barriers, offering care, time and commitment to people who more often than not find themselves in a tough spot through factors out of their control. Spend just two hours at Burnley Emmaus speaking with community manager Jane Cheeseman and a number of the ‘companions’ there, like we did, or have a chat with Wes Hall from Help The Homeless: East Lancashire and see if you walk away with the same misguided prejudices.
Help can come from anywhere as is the case with jobless Kieran who decided to embark on this charity challenge after bumping into a homeless man in Burnley town centre just days after Christmas.
We set off at noon on Monday and by the following noon, it was safe to say that neither of us would have fancied spending another hour on the streets let alone another night.
During the afternoon we walked around the town centre looking for anybody who might benefit from a few homemade sandwiches (ham or jam). We came across 43-year-old Anthony who was begging for money in Keirby Walk.
He told us that he currently had a bedsit in Burnley Wood but had previously been living on the streets for three-and-a-half years.
“I stayed under a bridge near the river, at the back of McDonalds. It was roof over my head. I make £4 a day and that is for food and drink”.
Fortunately for me and Kieran the day was broken up with two visits to Emmaus (which I will look at closer in my next feature) and if it wasn’t for that then I have no idea how we would have spent our time. When you think of people on the streets you imagine them battling the elements, staving off illness or struggling for food. But trying to keep an active mind must also bring with it its own set of challenges.
By 6pm, nightfall had descended, the temperature had dropped and I was beginning to regret not bringing extra blankets or a sleeping bag as well as giving my works key to a colleague. We finished up with Emmaus for the second time at around 9pm and as we walked back towards the town centre and the rain began to fall, we began discussing our options for overnight accommodation (we decided staying at Emmaus would most likely be considered cheating). Being in Burnley centre at night is sort of like being in a video game. Areas you can access during the day are closed off and anywhere that looks remotely hospitable tends to be off limits. We spent time in a trolley shelter at Sainsbury’s, various other cars parks and tried a couple of dodgy-looking back alleys.
At 2am I received a phone call from Help the Homeless’ Wes and he filled us in on the work he’s been doing in the area. He gave us a bag of chocolates and blankets and told us where we were most likely to find some of the regular rough sleepers. We searched high and low but to no avail.
All in all we must have walked in the region of 10 miles during the course of the day and night but even with the weariest of limbs, sleep proved elusive. We settled on the entrance to Burnley Library as a place of shelter and between 4 and 6am tried our best to get our heads down. The bitter cold wind, the freezing stone, the cramped conditions all contributed to, without doubt, one of the most uncomfortable two hours of my life. One night and I couldn’t hack it. One night with the added luxury of layers, food and a phone and I was close to wishing Kieran good luck, jumping in a taxi and heading home. The numerous kind texts and tweets from family and friends kept me going during the evening and reading them back throughout the night (when they had all buggered off to bed) helped as I tossed, turned and shivered the minutes away. I can’t even begin to imagine how a person can spend more than one night like that without warm clothes, blankets, food and a way to contact loved ones. How anybody is supposed to even begin thinking with a clear mind following a night in those kind of conditions, I have no idea. I went back to work at noon and it took me around four hours to cobble something remotely coherent together.
As we neared the end I asked Kieran how he felt it had gone. “One of the toughest experiences of my life” he said, smile firmly gone from his face.
“I really didn’t expect it to be so hard. I thought we’d be able to get some sleep at least but it was so difficult. Seeing the work they do at Emmaus was incredible though. It surpassed all my expectations.”
For a 20-year-old lad to do something like this is a story in itself. For a 20-year-old lad without a job and who is going through a few struggles of his own to do something like this, it is a truly incredible effort.
For me personally, it has opened my eyes to a plight unfairly stigmatized by society. One phrase I heard a number of times throughout the day is that we are all apparently just three wage slips away from finding ourselves on the streets.
I’ll certainly try and remember that next I begin to walk past somebody on the street.
• Kieran has raised close to £350 now for Shelter and is still taking donations at www.justgiving.com/kieransnightout