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‘Sleepers’ raise money for London's homeless

ImageL Sleepers waking up at 6 a.m. after Sleep Out 2008 on Nov. 14, 2008.
Sleepers waking up at 6 a.m. after Sleep Out 2008 in London on Nov. 14, 2008.Centrepoint
/ Source: NBC News

In J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking "Harry Potter" series, the adolescent wizard’s aunt and uncle often threatened to throw their famous ward onto the street.  Unfortunately, what was an empty threat in the fictional bestsellers is a sad reality for many British teens.  Centrepoint, a homelessness center founded in 1969 for young people ages 16-25 in Britain, tries to help.  For the past 40 years, it has provided 70,000 young people with housing, health care and education, while preparing them for life on their own — all without any Hogwarts magic.

On Nov. 12, Centrepoint will host Sleep Out, an annual event during which participants, called "Sleepers," give up the comfort of their beds for one night and spend the time outside on the streets. This year’s event will be held in London’s Old Spitalfields Market. The event allows people to experience a flavor of the daily plight of homeless young adults throughout Britain, albeit with food, security and a roof, amenities the homeless do not have.  In addition to a cold, uncomfortable night, Sleepers must raise 500 pounds (a little over $800) that goes to the center. 

In its inaugural event five years ago, Sleep Out raised about $65,000; last year it raised about $145,000.

“This year, we’re aiming to get at least 350 [Sleepers] and we’re aiming to raise a quarter of a million pounds [more than $400,000],” said Nick Connolly, 28, a spokesman for Centrepoint.

'Not your archetypal old men'
Returning Sleeper Richard Batten, 42, joint senior managing partner at King Sturge in London, notes the irony in his participation in Sleep Out, as he works in property management. “We deal in property, and we felt that a community project sitting alongside us here was something we should get involved in.” King Sturge’s London office works with Centrepoint throughout the year, offering mentoring resources and even jobs, to homeless people at Centrepoint.  Batten, a former soldier, was not fazed by the uncomfortable sleeping situation, but by the lack of security.  “What about the poor guys who are on the street who do not know when somebody can come up and give them a boot in the face?"

Jon Milward, 44, a partner at Drivers Jonas, a commercial property consultancy, will participate in Sleep Out for the first time this year.  He was shocked by the demographics of homelessness. “They’re not your archetypal old men in their 50s who’ve gone out and get drunk and been thrown out. These are kids who come from dysfunctional backgrounds, perhaps which aren’t really their making.”

Milward says he feels he's “actually doing something, rather than just going for a run, doing something interesting and difficult.”  He thinks that it is especially important to help raise money in tough economic times, since charities are not always on the top of people’s priority list.

A success story
During this year’s event, Stephanie, 19, [last name is withheld, as part of a Centrepoint policy to protect the young people they work with] will speak about her own experiences at Centrepoint.  “I was about 17, I’d been in an abusive relationship for two years, I was using cannabis, and I was not really in a good place emotionally and physically.” 

Centrepoint provided her with stable shelter as well as a caseworker who acted as a parent and counselor, talking through her personal problems and helping reshape her unhealthy lifestyle. “When I entered Centrepoint I didn’t have the support of my family … the extra emotional support really helped,” she says.

Stephanie recently told her inspiring story at the House of Commons, and according to Nick Connolly, she “brought politicians to tears.”  Many Sleepers are in the property and banking sectors and Connolly thinks that it’s important for business leaders “to hear somebody like Stephanie talk and actually get to see and hear it face to face.”

Stephanie says Centrepoint has turned around her life entirely. “I got a permanent flat … I can finally settle down after three years [and] I’m working, for my local council, as a youth adviser.” She is also looking forward to university next year where she will study interior design.

For more information on Sleep Out and Centrepoint, visit Centrepoint does not currently have tax-deductible status for Americans, but it is in their long-term plans.