THE 12th Annual Chester Aid to The Homeless Sleepover took place last Friday. BARRY ELLAMS joined the volunteers, who were all raising funds for the roofless hordes who walk the city streets.
WHILE many were pouring out of pubs and into nightclubs, glued to News at Ten or having an early night, 135 people were preparing for a night exposed to the elements.
At the Friary car park on Grosvenor Street there were 90 people and in St Mary's car park there were more than 45 from MBNA, raising money for Chester Aid to The Homeless (CATH).
Schoolchildren, students, businesses and wellwishers from all over the region chipped in to make the mass sleepover a success.
Wrapped in the warmest clothes I could find, I grabbed a sleeping bag, a hat, a radio - and some bin liners in case it rained.
It was already dark and the streets seemed fairly empty for a Friday night. Out of the gloom, I spotted a group of figures, ambling along Nicholas Street like a Bedouin tribe armed with clothes, sleeping bags and large strips of cardboard.
I followed them to the Friary car park and was greeted by the extraordinary sight of bodies sprawled on pieces of cardboard and fluorescent orange survival bags. There was lively chatter, the flash of cameras, torchlight and laughter. It was striking how the volunteers had arranged themselves in straight rows like vehicles on parking slots.
Stepping into this cardboard metropolis, I spotted a space, retrieved an old box roughly my size and set up camp.
I have been a keen watcher of the BBC programme Ray Mears' Extreme Survival, in which the former SAS trooper constructs comfortable outdoor abodes within the flick of an eyelid - my pale imitation was failing miserably. I turned to my neighbour, who was skilfully constructing his overnight shelter.
He was something of an origami expert, adeptly arranging the sheets to make a compact shelter with plastic sheets lining his bedding - somebody was determined to sleep soundly tonight.
We got chatting. His name was Gary Smith, he had lived in Chester all his life. He was 30 and he was homeless.
What was happening tonight, he said, didn't come close to the plight of the homeless. There was company, people had food and drink and, above all, the weather was fairly mild.
He was right - we were lucky. It was a mild night for December, a mist hung over Chester and a thin, inoffensive drizzle started to fall. The umbrellas came out and people tucked themselves into their survival bags, expecting this prelude to lead to a heavier patter of rain which never came.
Gary spoke of the hardship he has faced over the past month, when it had been a lot colder, and of how CATH had helped him to such an extent that he was fundraising for the charity.
He said: 'It's tough - it's really tough being homeless, especially in the winter. Tonight isn't too bad, it has been a lot worse than this over the last few weeks.
'CATH have been really helpful. I go to the day centre and you get food. They helped me get my dole money, arranged a dentist and offered advice. I am trying to find accommodation at the moment.'
My other neighbour introduced himself as Jack Barnes, warden at St Peter's Church in Waverton. He had been sponsored more than £500 for the night.
'This is the first time I have done this,' he said. 'I have come across home-lessness over the last year and I didn't realise the hardships or the difficulties that people face living on the streets - we really need to be doing as much for the homeless as possible, especially at this time.'
A Daimler pulled up out-side the car park a little after 10pm and a chauffeur opened the boot, pulling out a sleeping bag. Out stepped Cllr Barry Cowper, Lord Mayor of Chester, with a broad smile. As president of CATH, he was joining the roofless fundraisers, as did his predecessor, Cllr Brian Crowe, last year. He was joined by the vice-chairman of CATH, Cllr Margaret Parker.
Cllr Crowe said: 'I am delighted and very proud to be taking part in the 12th annual sleepout. This event is all about fundraising to achieve the £25,000 target we have set, but also about raising people's awareness.
'CATH works very hard to provide shelter and dignity for the homeless and we appreciate the efforts of all the people who volunteer their services like tonight.'
It was after midnight - the familiar Friday night sounds of late-night revellers and screeching brakes was bracing. This was real exposure. I was getting cold and opted for a sneaky tea break in the day centre while many slept.
The man with the blue hat filling in registration forms and pouring sweet tea in the day centre was Rush Hamid, chief executive of CATH.
He had been in the voluntary sector all his life and had recently moved to Chester to work with homeless people.
He said: 'I started working for CATH back in October.
'CATH is always very busy. More than 9,600 people have used the centre over the last year.
'We have had a record year for the sleepover this year. It's fantastic, we are hopeful of hitting our target. This is a fundraiser that is very much related to our mission and the understanding of the hardships faced by homeless people every day.
'It is directly related to the people we are trying to help and work with - people do get a feel for the issues facing homeless people, although it is nothing compared to those homeless people who face constant periods of time without shelter, day in, day out.
'CATH looks at ways of intervention by attacking the problems associated with homelessness in partnership with other agencies, including the county council social services and city council homelessness unit.'
Rush explained that homelessness was an insidious problem facing hundreds of people all over the region, from all classes.
'Homelessness can affect all classes, people from all walks of life,' he said. 'It can be people whose relationships have broken down, whether it be a married couple, family, parents, health reasons or job loss.
'If a table loses one leg, it is still fairly stable, if it loses all its legs it collapses. Sleeping rough at night when relationships have broken down and employment has been lost is this kind of collapse and can be a personal catastrophe for those experiencing it.
'Homeless people can feel exposed, isolated and extremely lonely and they will need a lot of support, an important factor that people should be aware of at this time of year.
'We get a lot of people coming through all year round for support and advice, they come from all over.'
Returning to my pit, I switched the small radio on to pass the time. The BBC DJ spoke of veils of thick fogs descending over Britain and I drifted into an interrupted sleep.
Just before 6am, people started to rise, gather their belongings and make the journey home - where they would finish their sleep in the warmth and comfort of their bedrooms.
The church warden was packing his sleeping bag and proclaimed, rubbing his sore back: 'I certainly don't recommend this every night.'
I made my excuses and left. The Lord Mayor was fast asleep, as was Gary, and I made my way home through the deserted city streets under the enchanting canopy of festive streetlights.
Early birds shuffled to work and, as I crossed over Cow Lane Bridge, a young person marched along the towpath with an empty shopping trolley. A surreal conclusion to an extraordinary night out.
Three days later, it was -2°C in Chester, frost glazed the windows and the roads - and I could only pity Gary and the others, stuck out on the streets. If you would like to make a donation to CATH, contact 01244 314834 or log on to www.cath.org.uk.