Last Friday night I participated in the third annual Dunedin Sleepout. The Sleepout raises money for the Dunedin Night Shelter and raises awareness of homelessness in our southern city. Despite the stories from others and my own knowledge of Dunedin and it’s frosty winters, nothing really prepared me for my night in the Octy.
Firstly, Dunedin is cold. Like, really cold. We braved one of the clearest, coldest nights of the year, where the temperature definitely dropped uncomfortably into the negatives. I’m a relatively tough Southern lass, but I have a fairly low tolerance for freezing my butt off. Kitted out in my expensive hiking thermals, fleeces and woolly socks, I hunkered down in an oversize windproof jacket and hoped for the best. Once the dance parties came to a close at 1am, I quickly realised that the night was only going to get colder. We had joked about going to the bars to keep warm, and I started to think that perhaps Suburbia would be my saviour after all.
Eventually I succumbed to adding a third layer of pants and a sixth top layer, and climbed into my extra dense sleeping bag. Around 4am, I wondered if the night was ever going to end as I warmed my hands on the coffee urn, hoping that the heat would soak through my gloves and into my bones. My heart hurt for those who do this night in and night out, with no real end in sight. As I wondered if I would ever feel warmth again, I considered the grim prospect of this being my only option. A cold, slightly damp student flat is still better than nowhere to go at the end of the day.
Secondly, is it trivialising homelessness to have an event where we sleep outside for one night and then proceed to return to our homes and regular lives? Can we really encapsulate the experience of being homeless with a 12 hour stint in the Octagon, with the knowledge that we only need to do it once? We had a plethora of cardboard and tarps to create shelters, generously donated and supplied by sponsors. There was no shortage of soup, coffee, hot chocolate or pizza. OUSA came through for the teams with hot water bottles that were constantly refilled from urns of hot water. I was surrounded by friends and fun activities that made the first several hours pass in what seemed like mere minutes. In many ways, we didn’t emulate the homeless experience at all. The only aspect that we really captured was being outside on a freezing night in Dunedin city.
However, the Sleepout did start conversations. I wasn’t the only person realising that sleeping outside is a barely sustainable situation. Homeless people approached our soup table and asked if they might have some soup, and it was the conversations had over soup that really underscored why we were doing this. Some felt failed by a system that couldn’t serve them. Others were thankful that someone with a voice, was saying something. Others just wanted a conversation and some soup. I am grateful for being able to share in people’s stories, and to be in a position where I have a voice that can fight for others who are not heard.
Finally, as the sun rose and the ice began to glisten on the road, the 2017 Sleepout drew to a close. Cardboard was packed away and students shuffled wearily back to their halls and flats. The only signs we had even been there were human shapes imprinted into the damp grass. For some, home is an undefined concept, a question mark hanging in the air daily. The homeless are those that we try not to make eye contact with as we hurriedly brush past on George St. We try to ignore what makes us uncomfortable, but that discomfort is the knowledge that the situation is wrong. At the end of the day, we are all humans. I sit now in my flat musing over the fact I can see my breath as I type. Yet someone else is probably considering where they can sleep safely tonight. Someone is spending their first night on the streets, fearing it won’t be their last. Someone is spending another night on the streets, wondering when will be their last?
If this is something that concerns you and you want to help out, get in touch with the Dunedin Night Shelter: http://www.dunedinnightshelter.co.nz/.