Admitting that you've slept rough is a difficult thing to do. I've found that the stigma attached to the topic is intense. People sometimes look at you in a certain way. They judge you - whether they mean to or not. You can see it in their eyes. An assumption is made about the sort of person you are. To me, that's wrong.
One of my University friends used to stop and talk to homeless people she met on the street. She would ask them their name, where they were from. What brought them to this point. For the most part, they were happy to talk. They didn't ask for money. They didn't want anything but someone to talk to. They were lonely and just needed a friend.
I know what that's like. I've been alone on the streets before. Some people I've told haven't believed me. That's because I come from a middle-class family and went to a Russell Group University. All I can say is that it doesn't take a certain type of person.
I won't go into the circumstances that led to me sleeping rough, because I want to protect the identities of those who were close to me at the time. On one occasion I found myself wandering along a dual carriageway at night, trying to find my way home. I knew it was after 2am, but I wasn't sure of the exact time - my phone had died a long time ago. I'd wasted the battery calling people for help. They were either asleep, not answering their phones, or too far away to help. Those who couldn't come out to help me told me they hoped I got home safely. So did I.
I'd had cars stop next to me on the road and drivers poke their heads out of the window to ask if I wanted a ride. I'd told them no, I was fine. Some of them had driven next to me for a bit, insisting they could help me. I didn't want their help. Eventually, they gave up and drove away.
When you're utterly alone in the middle of the night, in a dangerous environment, there are some things you need to do to protect yourself. Here's what I've learned from my experiences.
A torch is the most valuable thing you can own. Not just the flashlight on your phone - phones can die, I learned that the hard way. Keep an old-fashioned torch on you. You never know when you'll need light.
Put your phone in airplane mode unless it's absolutely essential that you use it. Don't turn it off, because you may need to make a call. Regardless, keep it on silent - you don't know if you're going to get mugged. Don't let the vibration or ringtone give you away if you get into that scenario.
Keep your valuables spread about your person. My tactic was to keep some money in my purse, but other money in the bottom of my right shoe. Notes, preferably - less bulk, and doesn't jingle as you walk. Keep your phone on your person - never leave it in a bag. If your bag gets stolen while you sleep, at least you'll have your phone.
Write essential phone numbers on a piece of paper. Whether it's an advice service, such as Shelter, the Samaritans, a trusted friend or family member - keep a hard copy of their contact details. You never know when you'll need to use a pay phone to get hold of someone. If your phone isn't working, you need a back-up. My friend and I got stranded in a village once and I knew my phone was going to die, so I wrote some numbers on my hand. When it did die, and a guy offered to let us borrow his phone, I was able to call for help.
Keep moving. Don't stay in one place for too long. People will target you more easily if they know you're there. Make sure you're never a target.
Sleep in the right place. I've slept in a graveyard before. No, it wasn't pleasant. Yes, I woke up to insects crawling up my leg. But I was safe. The right place is dependent on where you are geographically - in some areas, a graveyard won't be as safe. But at the time, I was in a small village in the middle of the night, and knew it didn't get visited often. I've also slept on the side of a road before, hidden by bushes, because few people would think to look for a sleeping person where there's a load of traffic a few metres away.
Keep a water bottle on you. Dehydration is the worst thing to endure. It makes you tired, it gives you a headache, you end up irritable, you lose the motivation to keep going. Sip water regularly. You'll need it more than you think.
No matter what your situation is, try and get in touch with friends, family or services. On some occasions, I've had no choice - I knew I had to stick it out. Make sure you've got options. Even if it's just talking to a helpline when you feel utterly desolate - that can make all the difference. On one occasion, I was sitting by the sea in Torquay, waiting for the sun to rise so I could get on a train and move on. I had enough phone battery to afford a phone call, as I knew the train cafe, when it opened, had plug sockets. So I called the Samaritans.
I explained my situation and said that I just needed someone to talk to, so that I felt less scared. Less alone. Like someone cared.
"I can certainly be there to listen. I'll stay on the phone until you can go to your train."
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