Why people across the world gathered to spend one night out on the streets

It rained on Saturday night. Yet, undeterred by the weather, about 500 people turned up in Besant Nagar, for ‘The World’s Big Sleep Out.’

Despite a change in venue, from Elliot’s Beach to Arignar Anna Government Higher Secondary School, Besant Nagar, the global event, organised on December 7, to show solidarity and raise funds for the homeless, saw a heart-warming, enthusiastic response from the city. At the venue — an open ground — a few large Arabian tents were erected, to provide some shelter from the rain.

Started by Josh Littlejohn MBE, co-founder of the Scotland-based charity Social Bite, ‘The World’s Big Sleep Out’ was run in partnership with the Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH), UNICEF USA, Malala Fund and Social Bite. Over fifty thousand people participated worldwide, gathering in parks and city squares with their sleeping bags. The event included an impressive list of celebrities. In Trafalgar Square, Helen Mirren read a bedtime story to participants. In New York, Will Smith sang a lullaby. Meghan Trainer and Sean Kingston performed in Los Angeles, while Gregor Fisher read a bedtime story for participants in Edinburgh.

Why people across the world gathered to spend one night out on the streetsWhy people across the world gathered to spend one night out on the streets

Of the 50 cities that participated, 24 were from India, from the metros to smaller towns like Cuddalore, Ranchi, Guntur and Gaya. In Chennai, the event was hosted by The Banyan in association with The World’s Big Sleep Out.

As the event kicked off, R Nataraj, former Director General of Police and current MLA from Mylapore, talked about the challenges of migrating from villages and rural areas towards the cities. Many, he said, are attracted by the allure of well-paid jobs in the city, then find themselves unable to cope and end up being homeless.

Director of The Banyan, KV Kishore Kumar, added that homelessness is a complex issue, related to multiple factors — poverty, unemployment, migration to cities and towns, failure of the monsoons and lack of irrigation facilities in villages, nuclearisation of families, and occurrence of disasters.

Creation of employment opportunities in villages, strengthening infrastructure in rural India and supportive families is the way forward to address the issue, he noted.

Karuppaswamy, a person with visual impairment who used to be homeless but is now rehabilitated by a city shelter, spoke about how having three meals a day and the security of having a roof over his head had transformed his life. Preethi, a college student, talked about how she and her mother were living on the streets, and how the timely help and support they received from the HCL Foundation and The Banyan was critical in uplifting her entire family. She is now pursuing a Post Graduate degree in MSW at Loyola College.

“Think about what it is like to sleep without a roof above. World over, thousands have participated in this event, but we know that it is roofless by choice for us — for one night. But out there, there are many who may be homeless forever,” said Retired High Court Judge Justice Prabha Sridevan, who was part of the audience.

Why people across the world gathered to spend one night out on the streetsWhy people across the world gathered to spend one night out on the streets

Guitarist Bruce Lee gave a touching testimony on his brief experience with homelessness. He spoke about how he ran away from home to play music — living on the platforms at Guindy and Egmore railway stations till he made enough money to rent out a small room. Since then, he has gone on to play for over 500 films in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam but his experience of being homeless is what still keeps him grounded.

Out of the 500 people who attended the event, over 200 stayed back to spend the night out in the open. Bruce summed up the night well when he said, “Always remember that what some of us take for granted, others are fervently praying for.”

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