30 July 2016

Sleeping Outside for Homelessness

About two or three weeks ago I got called into my school's deputy principle's office. Upon hearing his request to see me, every action which I have taken or committed  over the past five years of my high school career quickly flurried in and out of my mind. One might say that I'm a bit of a 'goody two shoes' hence being called into the office of the second-in-command outright petrified me.
Turns out, I was called in for my squeaky clean image. The school wanted me to represent them at a local charity event which has turned out to be life changing.

The CEO sleepout was created back in 2006, in Parramatta, Sydney. Nine years later, in 2015, the concept traveled across the Southern Ocean to South Africa. Last year's inaugural event extended as far as some of South Africa's top CEOs sleeping on the Nelson Mandela bridge in the middle of town called. This year, the event went beyond the top heads of companies and included as many as 65 schools sleeping outside for the night to raise awareness and create empathy for homelessness.

Myself and my fellow classmates arrived at the field which was to be our home for the night. We had previously gathered cardboard boxes to shield us from the elements- mainly temperatures of -2 degrees Celsius (20,3 degrees Farenheit). We lay down our cardboard in hopes of creating a shield between our sleeping bags and the soon to-be freezing grassy ground. We strategically set up camp beside a fire which roared like a lion. With base camp set up, we started to play our first 'ice-breaker' challenge with the other schools- which was appropriate in two ways: it broke the 'ice' between other people and broke our thoughts away from the inhospitable cooling weather.

One of the schools at the sleep out was a school for deaf students. They had printed out the alphabet with its matching sign to teach us. I spent a large part off my night learning sign language. I can officially introduce myself and say that I like to swim- which is all I really need to know, right? This experience was incredible for me. It was filled with such compassion, patience and humour. Firstly, it was incredible to be denied my voice, a tool which I have always known as being essential in social interaction. It was incredible, in a short amount of time, to need to develop a whole new set of skills to communicate with people. I lost my physical voice and these students  had lost their sense of hearing, but here we were, both denied a sense, yet communicating through the movement of our ten digits. From the whole night,  this moment really shines out for me; I was losing my voice and giving these marginalized students theirs. Somewhere between the letters A-Z I made friends. We bonded over my inability to sign particular letters like k and p and incapability to recall the whole alphabet about 30 seconds after I was taught it.

The most important part of the night came at 01:00. I bundled up with every layer of clothing I could manage to wear: After 5 layers on top, two pairs of tights, woolly pajamas pants and tracksuit pants on my legs, three layers of socks and my running shoes protecting my feet, I jumped into my sleeping bag. The first hour or so went well. I made a jersey into a makeshift pillow which I rolled under my head and slept like a Princess. This was short lived. By 2:30 or 03:00, I felt the cold nibbling at my toes and slowly scheming its was through my entire body- my beanie, ear muff, balaclava and gloves left me defenseless to this kind of cold. After as much rationale deliberation which one can manage under these circumstances, I 'sack-hopped' to the nearest fire place in hopes of propelling some of my kinetic energy into thermal energy and leeching upon the simmering embers from the orange and red flame like a pathogen leeching off its host.

I slept inside a sleeping bag with possibly five layers of clothing (which still was not enough), with a full stomach and I still lay mercilessly at the hands of the climax of South Africa's winter. I woke up with an aching back and an unusual grumpiness that I can only correlate to not getting a good night's sleep. Thousands of individuals, in South Africa, and globally do what I did for one night, everyday. These individuals do not have sleeping bags, five thermal layers and a full stomach. I took two naps the day after due to my inability to function. A sustainable society cannot be created when people are victims of these conditions. That night was an adventure for myself and my friends. It is a reality for thousands of others.

I drove around my city the day after-in between the naps- with a desire to pour out the content of my cupboards and give everything away. I saw a lady and her daughter begging on the side of the road and thought about the blue, polka-dotted pajamas I could give her. I saw a man holding a plastic bag collecting people's trash, and I thought about the streaky blue and green scarf which lays dormant in my cupboard 365 days a year but would mean the world to him.

I suggest this experience to everyone. Get a couple of friends together- or do it on your own: In the climax of your winter, grab a piece of cardboard and lay it on the ground, lay a sleeping bag on top and clad yourself in as many layers as you possibly can and then attempt to sleep outside. You will go to sleep that night wearing more than homeless people wear and it still will not have been enough. I always realized that homeless people slept on the streets but I wrongly thought I understood it. It is only when we submerge ourselves into someone else's circumstances that we truly understand someone. I have gained empathy, an insight and an understanding into the plight of thousands in my city, in my nation and in my world which is an understanding I hope shapes and moulds my values and outlook towards homeless people- and I hope changes yours too, if you wish to rise to this challenge.

I got into bed the night after rising to this challenge and I already noticed a difference in my behavior. I thoughtfully slid into my warm covers and carefully pulled the blanket up to to my ears. I completed these actions with a sense of cognizance which previously had not been there- I was appreciating the comfortable bed, raised above the ground which provided me warmth and comfort on that night and n so many nights before. I lay there, appreciative of the four walls which encompassed me from the cold. When I turned over to say my nightly prayer, I no longer only asked for the protection of my friends, family and those who I know, but pleaded for goodness towards those suffering on the streets. It changed me.


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