Saturday night was extremely busy in Edinburgh. As I battered through the crowds on their way to the Christmas market, I passed the Balmoral Hotel. Its glamorous portico was lit up with comforting festive lights and I couldn’t help but peer to see the enormous tree and smartly dressed doormen. While gawking I obstructed the way of a group of elegantly dressed women trying to make their way up the little red carpet, probably on their way to the office Christmas party.
After re-arranging my bulky sleeping bag so it was no longer obstructing my view, my eye was caught by a man hunched over on the floor with his back resting upon the bins at the top of Waverley Steps, in his arms rested a sweet-faced dog. I was again reminded of the importance of Social Bite’s mission to end homelessness in Scotland. By extension, the importance of fundraising events such as my destination, Sleep in the Park.
When visiting other countries, journalists and travellers alike often remark on the bombardment of images which represent the stark wealth disparity. The jarring juxtaposition of extreme wealth with destitute poverty. But one really doesn’t need to travel far at all, for this is our reality too. In every city in the U.K we face a homelessness epidemic. It is estimated that there are around 320,000 people homeless in the UK with around 5,000 sleeping rough.
Social Bite is a unique charity with not-for-profit sandwich and coffee shops and now a high-end restaurant, where the profits are used to provide housing and support to the homeless. Around a quarter of the businesses staff are those who have struggled with homelessness in the past, but have been provided training and employment by Social Bite. The businesses also provide a ‘pay-it-forward’ system which means customers who visit the shops or restaurant have the option to buy a meal or drink in advanced for someone homeless.
The Sleep in the Park initiative is a partly heart-warming and partly eye-opening event. The solidarity of thousands of people coming together to register their disgust of homelessness and willingness to do something about it re-affirms a faith in humanity and community. I do have to admit that the actual sleeping in the unsheltered freezing cold didn’t involve much sleeping. As I lay awake trying to wriggle off a rock without touching the dewy-wet part of my sleeping bag, the only thought to get me through was to frequently check my watch and think ‘only a few hours left and I can go back to my warm flat and have a bath’. I could barely imagine trying to face the next day on the street, followed by a continuous cycle of what I had experienced that night.
I am reminded of co-founder Josh Littlejohn’s words at the event, ‘whilst appalling, the figures are not insurmountable’. As I sit in a warm coffee shop writing this article I find that empathy is important, as well as gratitude for one’s own fortunate life, but what will really help is eating and drinking in one of Social Bite’s cafes and perhaps buying a warm drink for someone who has to face the harshness of living on the street. My fundraising page will also be open until Christmas Eve.