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Politics

How giving up your bed for the night could help tackle homelessness

Josh Littlejohn, the man behind the Social Bite cafe in Edinburgh, has started a new campaign to help the homeless: the World's Big Sleepout, an internal initiative to raise millions of pounds and help tackle a global epidemic.

On 7 December tens of thousands of people will come together to call for an end to homelessness at the World's Big Sleepout. This winter, 50,000 people will join us to sleep outside in places all over the world – from Times Square to Trafalgar Square to New Delhi – in a moment of global compassion and solidarity to support our most vulnerable people. Superstars such as Will Smith and Dame Helen Mirren will be "telling a bedtime story" to the brave participants as we aim to raise $50,000,000 to tackle homelessness everywhere.

Seven years ago, I could have never dreamed that I would be spearheading such a campaign. In 2012, I co-founded a small sandwich shop called Social Bite in the centre of Edinburgh, that didn't actually have anything to do with homelessness . When a 19-year-old called Pete, who was homeless and selling the Big Issue outside our shop, came in one day asking for a job, my path in life changed. Pete worked very hard for us and, when we needed to recruit another member of the team, we asked him if he knew anybody else who was homeless and might want employment. He suggested his brother Joe who was in the same situation. Joe also thrived in his new role and we got into a pattern of offering homeless people jobs in the cafe. When we introduced a "Pay it Forward" system, where customers could buy food and coffee in advance for homeless people to claim for free later on, the whole ethos of our business evolved to focus on tackling homelessness.

Over the years we expanded to create a small chain of cafes in Edinburgh employing and helping to feed homeless people, but we were unknown outside the local area. That changed in 2015 when we invited George Clooney to visit Scotland and pop into our cafe for a sandwich. Amazingly, in November 2015, Mr Clooney did just that. Suddenly our humble cafe was front-page news and the story travelled all over the world.

© Iain Masterton

This gave us an incredible platform to develop some more ambitious programmes and campaigns around the issue of homelessness. Over the last two years we have hosted a series of mass-participation Sleepout events in Scotland that have raised almost £8 million to fund programmes that will bring 1,000 people off the streets. The money raised from previous events even allowed us to build a "village" where homeless people can live and learn the skills they need to integrate themselves into traditional accommodation.

I have seen first-hand how celebrity support can help a small charity like ours raise awareness and aid more people. However, to launch our new campaign – the World's Big Sleepout – we decided to create a video to show why we are undertaking this effort. You can see it here. We made a decision not to show the famous people who are lending their support to the campaign. Instead, we show a day in the life of someone sleeping rough on the streets, through their eyes. They suffer loneliness, stigma, indignity, discomfort and pain. It ends with the stark message: “Your experience of homelessness ends now, but for 100 million people across the world the struggle continues. There’s a way you can help.”

And that’s at the heart of what we’re doing. We want you to make a connection with people who aren’t as fortunate as themselves. Sleeping out on 7 December is not about pretending to be homeless. It's an act of solidarity – to give participants a tiny insight into this reality, and to raise the funds and awareness needed to help people around the world.

As well as investing in charities that make a difference, we want to send a message to the world’s political leaders to enact compassionate policy and find solutions for homelessness and the global refugee crisis that affects us all. We are a small interconnected world.

By collectively sacrificing our beds for one night we can reach out a hand of compassion and solidarity to those who need it most – the homeless people on our doorsteps and international refugees. More than 50,000 people sleeping out on a winter night is a mandate for action. Please join us on 7 December.

To register for an official event or sign up to “Host Your Own” sleepout in your backyard, office car park, high school or university campus, go to bigsleepout.com

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