Lancaster reporter shares experience of sleep out for homeless

Guardian reporter Gemma Sherlock joined a  team sleeping out on the steps of Lancaster town hall, raising money for the Lancaster and District Homeless Action Service.
Guardian reporter Gemma Sherlock joined a team sleeping out on the steps of Lancaster town hall, raising money for the Lancaster and District Homeless Action Service.

Reporter GEMMA SHERLOCK joined a group who braved the freezing temperatures to sleep out on the steps of Lancaster Town Hall to raise awareness of homelessness. Here she talks about her experiences.

A water bottle sits in view, half of its contents near to freezing. Sleeping bags fill the stone steps, breaths from within them float into the night sky.

The group sleeping out for the homeless.

The group sleeping out for the homeless.

The not too distant sound of revellers enjoying a wild Saturday night shows no sign of fading and the group has lost all hope of sleep.

On the coldest night of the week, the front entrance of Lancaster Town Hall welcomed a group sleeping out in aid of the homeless – and I joined them.

Several layers of clothing and cardboard boxes between bodies and ground were not enough insulation to bring comfort.

But they were an alarming and eye-opening experience of what one in 200 go through on a daily basis.

The group during the sleep out.

The group during the sleep out.

It is estimated that one in every 200 people in the UK are homeless, according to Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity.

There are more than 300,000 homeless people in Great Britain, says the charity.

“Lancaster is the same as anywhere else, nationally the homeless population has gone through the roof,” said Gary Welch, manager at Lancaster & District Homeless Action Service (LDHAS), who took part in the sleep out.

“Now every year I have done this (sleep out) I have slept a little bit, got up, felt rubbish, gone home, gone to bed and gone to sleep, can you imagine having to do that then waking up and having nowhere to go?

The group during the sleep out.

The group during the sleep out.

“You wake up and you think what do I do next?”

The sleep out, organised by LDHAS, began on a cloudless night at 9pm.

People from all walks of life chose to give up their Saturday night to raise awareness of homelessness in our city and beyond.

According to the number of people sleeping rough in the north west has risen each year since 2010.

Their statistics show 100 people were sleeping rough in 2010, 147 people in 2011, 149 people in 2012, 152 people in 2013, 189 people in 2014, 220 people in 2015 and 313 people in 2016.

You can begin to see that rise when walking the streets at night.

Doorways to shop fronts, benches and museum steps were homes for the night for those less fortunate in Lancaster.

As partygoers stumbled up Penny Street looking for their next club, homeless couples, some with dogs, some without a companion, looked on.

We wandered the streets offering the homeless help, hot food and drinks.

One man tearfully accepted my donation of hat and gloves.

Discomfort surged inside me as I looked at those walking past, under the influence of alcohol.

To my drunken sight the figures in the doorway would become background noise, a smudge in the corner of the eye.

Tonight they were in view, in plain sight, clinging to my emotions. After collecting donations for the service we ambled back to the steps, grateful for the walk as it warmed our bones.

I sank in my sleeping bag suddenly aware of the dropping temperatures and after several hours gave up on sleep.

I thought back on what Gary had said to me just a few hours ago.

“You are going to find out tonight what it’s like to sleep outside,” he said.

“Just try and get some sleep.”

But I couldn’t.

A homeless man joined us for the early hours, wearing just a jacket.

When asked if he was cold he simply replied: “No, I’m used to it.”

Gary later grabbed a sleeping bag for him from the shelter.

Visitors came, some commended us, while some questioned whether people were truly homeless or simply begging.

“I think Lancaster people are very good, they are always very generous with us,” said Gary.

“I very rarely hear of anyone being hurt.”

As the clubs and pubs wound down and the early morning bin men began 
their cleaning rounds, we 
began to count down the hours.

Exhausted but rewarded we stood up at 7am with a sense of accomplishment.

The money raised from the sleep out, which is still being collected, will go 
towards LDHAS’s Christmas shelter for the homeless.

The Just Giving page set up by myself has raised more than £400 thanks to the community’s generous donations.

Thanks go to McDonalds on Cheapside who offered the group free refreshments and use of toilet facilities during the sleep out. You can still donate to LDHAS at

Lancaster & District Homeless Action Service is committed to helping people find accommodation, helping them learn the life skills essential for independent living, and providing help and support to engage with the job market.

They work with people from many varied backgrounds where circumstance has led them to be sleeping rough, or struggling to manage their own accommodation.

Other services who offer help and advice:

l Lancaster and District YMCA – Doorstep Project – Fleet Street, 01524 32737.

l Lancaster City Council – Housing Services Section – Oak Tree House, West Road, Lancaster, 01524 66882.

l Morecambe Foyer – 
Morecambe Customer Service Centre, Town Hall, Marine Road East, 01524 582257.

l Streetlink – Lancaster City Council, 24/7 StreetLink phone line 0300 500 0914 or report your concerns using the StreetLink website

Streetlink is a way of alerting local authorities and specialist services to someone who may be in desperate need of help, whatever the time of day or night.

A team of city council staff are on standby 24/7 to respond to alerts and offer on the spot support and advice as well as making arrangements to get them off the street and into temporary accommodation during periods of sub-zero temperatures.

Although some rough sleepers are already known to the team, there can be others new to the district who remain unnoticed, bedding down at different times of day or night, and moving from place to place.

l Alternatively, at evenings 
and weekends you can call Lancaster City Council on 01524 67099.