Inside Social Bite’s Sleep in the Park

Last Saturday, 8,000 people bedded down in the world's biggest charity sleep-out. Paul English discovers Josh Littlejohn's journey from opening a sandwich shop to inspiring a movement to end homelessness in Scotland

It’s half three in the morning, and minus six in the night. I’m stuffed inside a sleeping bag in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, swaddled in seven layers with a deadly carpet of frost creeping towards me.

To my left, under a tree, a man is cocooned in a plastic bag, his snores droning like the distant throttle of a vintage moped.

A group of girls are laughing at the other end of the park, their shrieks carried towards me on the perishing December air like a hen night on the city’s Cowgate.

I curse their selfishness, each frustrated grunt rushing away in an icy white cloud as if to escape the freeze. Time is marked by the slapping shut of plastic Portaloo doors … every … two … minutes.

For six hours.

Clunk.

Clunk.

Clunk.

I’m one of 8,000 bedding down for Sleep In The Park, the world’s largest charity sleep-out. But sleep I cannot.

The fundraiser, organised by the Social Bite enterprise, brought thousands together to enjoy and endure a night of entertainment and a sanitised experience of rough sleeping on the coldest night of the year last weekend.

Littlejohn has grown his project from a sandwich shop on Edinburgh’s Rose Street five years ago, to a small network of shops feeding thousands of homeless folk and providing the disenfranchised with self-worth, new skills and fragile hope.

Social Bite has become a headline-grabbing force for good. Hollywood A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney have endorsed Littlejohn’s vision, and the network of shops increase to five. Last year, a smaller sleep-out featuring business leaders and newspaper editors was staged, and the funds raised have gone some way towards funding a ‘homeless village’ in Granton.

This year Littlejohn stepped things up a level, staging a music festival with arena-sized acts Liam Gallagher, Deacon Blue and Amy Macdonald, with comedians John Cleese and Rob Brydon also on the roster.

Littlejohn, 31, can’t believe how far his idea has come: “When we set up Social Bite, it didn’t have anything to do with homelessness,” he says. “We set up a sandwich shop as a social enterprise.”

A Big Issue vendor called Pete Hart, whose pitch was outside the shop, ended up with a job inside washing dishes. He got his brother one, too. Headlines followed.

“All that really happened was a young guy went from selling magazines to washing dishes,” says Littlejohn. “If that’s a news story then it shows how little social mobility there is for people in that part of society. The original idea was just to make a profit and give the money to charity.”

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Tonight’s aim is much the same. Each of the 8,000 sleeping in the park raised a minimum of £100. Banks and big businesses publicly flexed their corporate social responsibility muscle, with substantial donations. By the time Littlejohn has taken to the stage to address the crowd, £3.6 million has been raised. The total continues to rise.

Two housing organisations, Wheately Group and EdIndex, pledged 500 homes to the cause, and the money raised by the sleepers will go some way towards the “wraparound support” for those who end up living in them.

With this number of people doing something about it. Something will change

Littlejohn points to Scotland’s “11,000 homeless households” and the numbers in each of its cities as “not insurmountable.”

He says: “It’s not about resource, it’s about focus. These people are being ignored individually and politically. They have complex needs, and they are filed in a ‘too difficult’ drawer. We want to create a level of public and political focus. These are vulnerable people and they need people to stick up for them. They were kids one day, and they were dealt much worse cards than the rest of us.”

Littlejohn first approached Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross to take part in a fundraiser. Ross has been here before, having stood in front of 200,000 as the headline act at Glasgow’s Big Day in 1990, a charity bash raising funds for the homeless as part of Glasgow’s European City of Culture year. Live on Channel 4, he furiously condemned Westminster’s politicians for ignoring the people of Scotland, and the country’s homeless.

Twenty-seven years later, the cause remains.

Ross says: “I think sometimes people just accept things the way they are. You travel to other cities in the world and you see how homelessness is endemic. It takes people like Josh to say ‘things shouldn’t be this way’.”

But is the message in danger of being lost to the party?

Ross’ wife and bandmate Lorraine McIntosh doesn’t think so. “I don’t think anyone thinks they’re coming to a party if they’re coming to sleep out in the middle of Edinburgh on a night as cold as this,” she says. “It’s a movement of people, saying they want to change things, because the government aren’t doing it fast enough.”

Sleep in the Park
Around 8,000 people braved the sub-zero temperatures for Sleep in the Park

As the crowd gather around the Ross Bandstand, singer Amy Macdonald is backstage preparing for her set, pondering public perception. “People need to rethink their attitudes towards homelessness,” she says. “You never know what people have been through before they’ve ended up on the street, and judging them for being addicts is wrong. Nobody deserves to be living on the streets.”

Back in the gardens, Bob Geldof is whipping up the crowd, condemning Theresa May and pouring scorn on the money spent on Brexit when the NHS crumbles and mental health provision flounders.

A film featuring a homeless man called Dode is played on the big screens, and his desperate situation casts complete silence over the gardens, before Littlejohn reveals a home has been found for him. The crowd roars its approval.

I meet a Big Issue vendor getting heat in a medical tent. He doesn’t want to be named, but tells me he thinks things will change.

“You mean with the weather tonight?” I ask him.

“I mean with homelessness in this country,” he says. “With this number of people doing something about it. Something will change.”

I’m deeply touched by the occasion. It says something about the willingness of our society to tackle these challenges

His words stay with me as I lie in the frost, attuned to every sound, awake as the frozen minutes turn to hours, worrying about how I’ll manage tomorrow. I’m cold, tired and my sleeping bag is wet, despite the dry night. God knows how anyone copes in the snow.

At 6am, Deputy First Minister John Swinney, having rolled up his bivvy bag, is serving bacon rolls to sleepers in an Edinburgh restaurant, and talking about the government’s £50 million homelessness fund.

“I was asked earlier if I would do this next year and I said I hoped I wouldn’t have to, that the momentum would be enough to help overcome some of these challenges,” he says. “That’s an issue for us to wrestle with. I’m deeply touched by the occasion. It says something about the willingness of our society to tackle these challenges.”

As 8,000 people in the Princes Street frost will testify, it says something more about the expectation upon our governments to make good their word so that none of us have to spend a night on the street again. Whether or not we choose to.

What some of famous faces said on the night

Deacon Blue drummer Dougie Vipond (who was one of the few performers to sleep out)
“Last night it was cold and uncomfortable, but it wasn’t that bad because I knew later on I’d be sitting on my warm couch with my heating on. But I can’t imagine waking up knowing I’d have to sleep out again tonight. The mental strength required for that is incredible.”

John Swinney, Deputy First Minister of Scotland
“There’s a mental fortitude required to enable you to do this night after night, but often it’s issues around mental wellbeing which have resulted in people being homeless. To survive it they need mental strength and resilience.”

Bob Geldof
“We’ve just spent an unnecessary 50bn Euro on something that should never have happened, when that money should be going to maintaining the systems of this country which are falling apart, and which can deal with the issues you are trying to address tonight.”