David McLean: Let’s hope we don’t need a Sleep in the Park encore

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On Saturday night, I was one of 8,000-odd other people attending Sleep in the Park.

I met with the other two thirds of ‘Team Lost Edinburgh’ ahead of opening time to avoid big queues and ensure we didn’t max out our tolerance to the cold all in the first half hour.

Fundraisers at Sleep in the Park.''Picture by Stewart Attwood

Fundraisers at Sleep in the Park.''Picture by Stewart Attwood

After a lot of faffing about with an infuriatingly-temperamental QR code scanner, we descended into the gardens to have our bags checked then made our way to Sleep Zone B.

The scale of the operation was wild; West Princes Gardens as I had never seen it before.

Each stretch of grass in the gardens was rope-cordoned off with massive tarpaulin ground sheets laid everywhere. The smell of barrel fires, hog roasts and La Favorita was heavy in the cold, still air.

It was the chilliest night of the year with the mercury expected to drop to around -6C. I had prepared for this eventuality the best I could by cladding myself head to toe in Merino wool thermals.

We set up our mats and sleeping bags on a bit of slope that we quickly dubbed ‘Hillend’ on account of the slippery layer of frost covering the tarpaulin, then made our down to join the queues for food and drink. There was plenty on offer for the entire duration of the event and the free fill-ups of tea, coffee and hot chocolate were most welcome.

At 7pm we made our way to the concert arena for the night’s entertainment.

Initiated by STV’s Ewen Cameron and hosted by a prickly sharp Rob Brydon, the music got off to a great start with an emotionally-driven number by Sharon Martin & John Watson. A few words from Sir Chris Hoy and a throbbingly-energetic performance by indie outfit Frightened Rabbit completed the first hour.

At 8pm sharp, Sir Bob Geldof, in typical Sir Bob Geldof style, hammered home the need to eradicate poverty and homelessness and called the crowd “f****** excellent”. A short video on the who, what and why behind Social Bite followed.

Rob Brydon welcomed on Social Bite’s Alice Thompson and Alan Mahon and a few current employees, who, thanks to the charity sandwich chain, have managed to turn their lives around.

Next up, 15-year-old Bonnie Higgs impressed the crowds with a beautiful song with guitar work and vocals to match. The night of music was then wrapped up by an on-fire Deacon Blue and a ferocious finale from headliner Liam Gallagher, who treated the crowd to a mix of new stuff and old Oasis favourites.

The man himself, the truly inspirational Josh Littlejohn, then came out to thank the 8,000 attendees for helping to raise an astonishing £3.6 million and made a convincing pledge to eradicate homelessness in Scotland for good. Littlejohn explained how the numbers involved were by no means insurmountable and that it really could be done.

We stuck around for comedy legend John Cleese to tell a totally unconventional bedtime story, but by this time, my feet were so frozen, I was pretty desperate to get moving again.

It was now 11pm and the three of us knew we had another seven hours to go. Looking around at the shivering masses, I felt proud to be in there, but also incredibly saddened at the same time; saddened that this is what it had come to: an social entrepreneur and philanthropist setting up a rock concert so that the most vulnerable in our society could be guaranteed that most basic thing – a roof over their head.

Wrapped up in my cagoule and thermal layers, I got into my sleeping bag and knew immediately there would be no getting to sleep in the park. It was too cold, too noisy and too damn uncomfortable. How on earth does the average homeless person cope, most of whom will have less than half the provisions I had?

The general atmosphere was pleasant, but noticeably restrained. There was certainly no cheering, no singing, nothing like that. We all knew why we were here.

When 5:30am arrived, a text message from Social Bite alerted me that we’d done it. It had been one hell of an evening; exciting, meaningful and utterly freezing. It just seems unfathomable to think such awful realities as homelessness exist in modern-day Scotland. People sleeping rough without cover, open to the elements, faced with squalor, exposed to vermin and threats of physical or sexual violence. It’s just heartbreaking.

Sleeping rough is no joke, and that’s why it must be brought to an end right now. I genuinely enjoyed Sleep in the Park, and all that it meant, but for the love of all that is good, let’s hope we don’t need an encore.