The World’s Big Sleep Out is awakening the world to plight of rough sleepers

The World’s Big Sleep Out, at Trinity College on December 7, will be held in solidarity with people who live on the streets and to raise awareness, Dame Louise Casey tells Helen O’Callaghan

Dame Louise Casey and Josh Littlejohn promoting the World’s Big Sleep Out, which will take place at 50 locations across the world.
Dame Louise Casey and Josh Littlejohn promoting the World’s Big Sleep Out, which will take place at 50 locations across the world.

FOR three decades, Dame Louise Casey has been helping the homeless.

As head of the UK’s Rough Sleepers Unit at the turn of the century, her strategy cut by two-thirds the numbers of homeless people living on the street and did so within a three-year period.

“Once you get under the skin of homelessness, you realise there are significant problems going on in people’s lives. Homelessness is complicated,” says Casey, a driving force behind The World’s Big Sleep Out, which takes place in Ireland, at Trinity College, on December 7.

Casey’s biggest worry is for those who have been on the streets the longest. “If they’re not ill going on the streets, they become ill on the streets,” she says. While she lauds the Irish government’s housing strategy — comparing it favourably with the Brexit-obsessed UK government’s lack of ambition around homelessness — she’s adamant that homelessness can only be truly tackled by a connected-up strategy.

“You have to do more than house people to tackle homelessness. If you don’t tackle the drug or alcohol addiction, the mental health difficulties, alongside the housing, they’ll stay homeless,” she says.

Casey’s father was Irish (“he’d be 100-and-something now, if he was alive”), and his father, Louise’s grandfather, was a tenant farmer. “When he {the grandfather} died, the family split up. My dad arrived in Liverpool aged 13, one brother went to Canada, another to New York, another elsewhere in the UK. I’m not sure if this heritage is what made me, throughout my life, want to ensure those who needed help got it,” Casey says.

The help needed can be as individual as the rough sleepers she meets, like the tiny, frail, bird-like, 82-year-old woman she found sleeping on the steps of St Martin in the Fields on Trafalgar Square. “A lady like that, her life was one of abuse, of pain. She had sores all over. We carried her to an ambulance and she wouldn’t go to a hospital. She went to a St Vincent de Paul project. We took her there at night and that’s where she stayed,” Casey says.

Another who comes easily to Casey’s mind is the 19-year-old who’d just come out as gay — his parents wanted him out of the house. “He was helped quickly and easily. There was family mediation with his parents and they were reunited. So the solution could be finding a really quiet place of safety for an old woman or family mediation. To find the solution, you have to be on the journey with people.”

With 1,721 families homeless in Ireland today — an increase of 178% since 2015 — Casey says that we insulate ourselves against rough-sleeping by taking it for granted and by saying it’s someone else’s problem. Casey wants people’s mindsets to change. “I want it so that if you see someone homeless on the street, it’s like seeing someone injured on the street. You don’t leave them there. It’s an emergency. You take them to hospital.” Adding that she’s “no pushover” and is “very tough about what love is,” Casey holds no truck with the idea that someone has a ‘right’ to be homeless. “I say: ‘So you have a right to be abused, to die young, to be robbed — what kind of right is that?’ It’s a false way of life. We should challenge people on the street — say, ‘listen, you’re coming in, you have to’ — but we can only do this if we have the correct, connected strategy in place.”

On the first Saturday in December, the world will unite to help fight homelessness with what might be the largest charitable fundraising campaign in a generation.

The World’s Big Sleep Out, spearheaded by Josh Littlejohn, MBE, founder of social enterprise Social Bite, will take place in up to 50 locations globally. From London, New York, and New Delhi to Brisbane, Singapore and San Jose, the campaign spans continents and is being backed by celebrities, including Will Smith and Dame Helen Mirren, who’ll tell bedtime stories in New York’s Times Square and London’s Trafalgar Square, respectively. Some of the largest companies and charitable foundations worldwide have got on board (Facebook, eBay, Nasdaq, Weightwatchers, Microsoft).

This will follow on from Social Bite’s Sleep in the Park events in 2017 and 2018. These were held in Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, where 18,000 people gave up their beds, raising £8m. It’s hoped that 50,000 people will participate in the upcoming World’s Big Sleep Out and raise $50,000,000.

Casey, a driving force in establishing the Chicago-based Institute for Global Homelessness, which aims to deliver an international solution to homelessness, says nobody’s suggesting that sleeping out for one night is the same as being homeless.

“Of course not, but it’s showing solidarity, compassion, and how homelessness is just not acceptable in the 21st century,” she says.

In Dublin, members of the GAA will stand together and sleep out in Trinity College (“what an iconic place for the Sleep Out — it’s at the heart of so much that has started in Ireland,” says Casey).

Depaul — a cross-border charity working in homelessness and its prevention — is partner of The World’s Big Sleep Out in Dublin and Belfast.

Depaul chief executive, David Carroll, says:

“We would encourage people from across Ireland to sign up and join us in bringing the world’s attention to the growing issue of homelessness.”

People are urged to register for an official event or sign up to ‘Host Your Own’ sleep out in their backyard, office car park, school or university campus. Visit www.bigsleepout.com. All funds raised will go towards homelessness charities.

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