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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Sleep outs spark debate

November 01 2010
A gift to fundraisers or homelessness tourism?

Homeless charities and organisations arranging sponsored sleep-outs have come under fire from the chief executive of a leading homelessness charity.

Sponsored sleep-outs, where members of the public volunteer to sleep rough for a night in aid of homeless projects, have become an increasingly popular fundraising practice, attracting high profile participants such as Prince William, who slept-out for charity Centrepoint last December.

Jeremy Swain, chief executive of Thames Reach, has used online forums and public networking sites to rally against the practice, tweeting recently that "people will never understand homelessness if every campaign is based on rough sleeping image." He insists that by focusing only on the rough-sleeping aspect of homelessness, sleep-outs undermine both the complex needs of homeless people (which encompass issues such as addiction and mental health) and the wide range of services and projects that are available to meet them. He warns that public displays of rough sleeping could lead the public and policy makers alike to perceive the role of homelessness organisations as merely providing soup and shelter.

Speaking to The Pavement, Mr Swain expressed disappointment that charities with significant fund-raising potential failed to be more creative with their methods. He dismissed sleep-outs as a "lazy approach to fund-raising", and instead advocated fundraising that "avoids stereotypes of homeless people - no bodies in doorways". He is critical of activities that promote this kind of image of homeless people and argues that stereotyping them as helpless rough sleepers creates misconceptions about their ability to change their lives and overcome homelessness.

He told The Pavement: "The message is then that homeless people are passive victims, vulnerable, inadequate and needy. I have 103 colleagues here at Thames Reach who were once homeless and they are none of the above." When asked to suggest alternatives to sleep-outs, Mr Swain was quick to propose a range of activities that involved positive and hands-on collaboration between homeless people and sponsors, such as a sponsored cooking competition or park clean-up. Thames Reach has organised many activities of this kind, and Mr Swain insists that when the public are given the opportunity to spend a day with homeless people, "lo and behold! [Members of the public] find out that [the homeless] are intelligent and interesting people who have had a hard time, not addicts and wasters!"

Objecting to Mr Swain's criticism, Lisa Lewis, project manager of Doorway, a charity drop-in centre in Chippenham, applauds sleeping-out as "a very effective means of gaining both media and public attention to highlight the fact that homelessness exists at all in rural areas." Ms Lewis told The Pavement that by sleeping-out for a night, "we can raise awareness and then go on to educate the public in the issues surrounding homelessness on all levels. We use rough sleeping as a starting point."

Sleep-outs are part of a growing trend that has seen members of the public volunteer to temporarily experience the plight of the homeless. In a recent BBC show, Filthy Rich and Homeless, based on a real-life course in the USA, wealthy Britons swapped their cars and home for 10 days to live alongside homeless people. Mr Swain and Ms Lewis's comments form part of the ongoing debate within the homelessness sector about whether sleepouts and other public participation activities should be welcomed as helpful methods of raising money, or denounced as misleading displays of homelessness tourism.