A real eye opener into life sleeping on streets

The Big Sleepout at Rotherham Parkgate shopping centre to raise funds for Safe@Last, pictured is Guardian reporter Sam Chetwynd at the Big Sleepout (w121023-9a)
The Big Sleepout at Rotherham Parkgate shopping centre to raise funds for Safe@Last, pictured is Guardian reporter Sam Chetwynd at the Big Sleepout (w121023-9a)

It was when I snuggled down in my sleeping bag, with just a cardboard box saving me from the elements that it hit me.

What thousands of young runaways have to go through just to survive is unimaginable.

I was sleeping rough for just a night, so despite a period of little uninterrupted sleep, it would be only hours before I would meet my warm bed again.

But for some youngsters around South Yorkshire who runaway, there will be no hot food, no shower or warm bed – and no hours counting down to when their experience would be over.

Home for them is out on the streets, with just cardboard for a mattress and food, well, that simply comes whenever they can find or afford it.

It is estimated that 4,000 children run away from home each year in South Yorkshire and research has shown that one-in-four young people who runaway end up spending at least one night sleeping rough.

And it is for people like this that I wanted to take part in The Big Sleepout at Parkgate Shopping Centre in Rotherham.

Not only did I want to find out what these youngsters have to go through on a daily basis, I also wanted to help make a difference in whatever way I could.

Safe@Last is a charity I have covered a lot in the Dinnington Guardian. They offer an alternative to being on the streets, try to prevent kids from running away again, provide a free helpline operated by trained volunteers and run activities aimed at engaging youngsters.

They are the ones making a difference to these young people, many of whom have been bullied, assaulted or neglected.

The enthusiasm of staff and volunteers is amazing and is evident during the night. Despite time seemingly standing still at times, they were always there checking on our welfare.

Access to hot drinks and toilets felt like a luxury and when a cupcake was handed to me, thanks to Greggs, I felt like I had won the lottery.

At 3am I decided it was time to get some sleep, or at least try. I was grateful for the umpteen layers I had put on, despite it only being October,

Despite my preparation it was a frustrating attempt at sleep, with delivery lorries and traffic noise – but thankfully it remained relatively dry.

Around 4.30am the temperature dropped significantly and any hope of further sleep was dashed. The same could be said for the other 120 or so people who took part, many now huddled together to keep warm.

My experience was like nothing I’d ever done before. This wasn’t camping or a night under the stars. This was a real eye opener into what thousands of youngsters have to go through on a daily basis.

At 6am my experience was over, but as I made my way home I couldn’t help but think of the youngsters who were just starting another day on the streets. For them they may never know when their nightmare will end.

Safe@Last expects to raise around £6,000 from the event and held similar sleepouts in Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster.