As I lie staring up at the twinkling stars in the indigo sky, I feel so profoundly present and have a sense of wonder at this natural beauty and simplicity. I've never slept under an open sky before, and it's breathtakingly beautiful. The frost has whispered its way in as I lie here, leaving a sparkling trace on my eyelashes and even on my sleeping bag. The castle is silhouetted against the sky, looming way up high, yet a comforting presence looking over all who lie below.
It's -7'C, and I'm surprisingly warm, apart from around my eyes which is the only area exposed to the elements. Layered up with thermals and a 'survival suit' lent to me by my brother-in-law, I feel well-equipped and have a sense of being looked after by those who care for me and gave me these warm clothes to wear.
Many are not so lucky, and that's why we're here, at Sleep in the Park, organised by Social Bite, to help end homelessness in Scotland. I have learned so much by being here, and the experience has been reflective, inspirational, humbling, fun (Rob Bryden and John Cleese especially!) and deeply moving.
I'm here with my friend Vicky, whose motto is 'living, loving, and learning'. We're certainly doing that here, and I have felt such deep connection with her throughout and since. She is an amazing woman and wonderful friend. Vicky took the photo of our view from our 'beds'. We missed our team-mates Eimear and Carolyn, who unavoidably couldn't make it on the night, and shared their support from afar, as well as fundraising.
We are lying amongst 6,000 'bodies' in orange survival bags - thank goodness for those as the dampness has crept in worse than the frost. We are all sleeping out to raise awareness and funds for vital projects, and had almost forgotten about the entertainment that was planned. Whilst we are together in a positive, uplifting atmosphere there is a certain hush, a seriousness which conveys our deep feelings about the brave souls with no choice but to find a doorway, bench, or cardboard box and try to survive each night.
I jump as someone walks past, less than a foot from my head. It's just a woman heading for somewhere to get warm, but still it's alarming lying vulnerable on the ground like that. Again, I reflect on what it must be like - I can't imagine the full reality of it to live with that constantly.
Two things, among many others, have really stuck with me from this event:
Hearing from homeless people, in their own words, what it's like to "feel invisible", with people walking past without a glance or a word. Or worse, for women, who are often abused, spat on, can even be exposed to trafficking, and fear for their safety so much that they try to find somewhere to hide. Appalling, in our society, but true.
All homeless people ask is that others acknowledge them, not look down on them (in any sense of the word).
We can make a huge difference. We heard from people who have been given opportunities for jobs and homes and have found their way forward. One girl had felt invisible all her life, and says she now "feels like a human being". Not much to ask, is it?! As Josh Littlejohn, Social Bite founder said: "It's not them and us, it's just US". Josh described how the "hand we are dealt" is a significant factor with issues like homelessness, often with people falling out of the care system and very difficult early lives shaping a very uncertain future. The average life expectancy for rough sleepers is 43 - around the same age as me. If we had been dealt the same cards, it may well have been us in that position right now.
With the right support and organised frameworks and projects, this is already transforming lives.
Probably the most significant was the story of Dode, who had appeared on a documentary just a few weeks ago and couldn't find anywhere to sleep because of his desperately poor health, with bowel cancer, HIV, agonising ulcers on his legs, and recently having a heart attack. He said he'll be dead by Christmas. This has been his destiny since he was on the streets and was addicted to heroin by the age of 15.
Not any more. Dode didn't die.
Through projects like this one, he has been given a home and I will never forget Dode's smiling face in that photograph as he sits in his new living room.
Here's what Social Bite have reported has already been achieved as a result of this event:
People sleeping out and their supporters raised an incredible £2.6m
Clydesdale Bank committed an additional £0.5m
There was also an anonymous donation of a further £0.5m, bringing the total raised so far to £3.6m!
495 homes across the central belt including the 20 homes from Social Bite village, 275 homes from a collaborative project in Edinburgh, and 200 homes in Glasgow through Wheatley Group
"The money raised will help fund the support structure for the people moving into these tenancies. This will include addiction support, getting a bank account in their name, support with mental health, helping them into employment and more - removing them from the cycle of homelessness and finally including them IN our society. Together we have taken a massive step toward ending homelessness in Scotland. With your support, we will continue to strive to take further steps across all of Scotland. We will announce the final amount raised on Christmas Eve and until then you can still donate by visiting www.sleepinthepark.co.uk." Social Bite
If you haven't already, please consider making a donation via Sleep in the Park website. Together we can end homelessness. Thank you for your support.