As I bedded down for the night in a cardboard box in aid of charity, six words resonated in my mind - nobody expects to end up homeless.
A roof over our heads and the additional benefits that go with it is an assumed luxury when growing up.
People may envision their life with bouncing children, a flash car or a successful career, but nobody would foresee days and nights on the streets in their future.
However, life doesn’t always go to plan. Any number of factors can contribute to someone becoming homeless and one of the most galling things about it, is that you hardly ever see it coming.
Two weeks ago, a woman called Gloria Venables sent a letter to the Observer. She wrote: “The number of homeless in this area appears to be growing, but I never dreamed that one day I, a pensioner, would come very close to joining them.
“I have the caring staff at the Seaview Centre to thank for my rescue. Seaview is an organisation in St Leonards that works with the homeless and insecurely homed.
“Some months ago, having worked consistently all his life, my husband had a breakdown. The signs had been there for a while but we had failed to recognise them.
“Suddenly, he lost his health, his job and his income. Worse was to follow.
“Due to his particular working experiences he did not even qualify for sick pay, unemployment benefit nor, to date, any other source of income. We eventually faced a situation where we had no income at all apart from my pension, which did not even cover our rent.”
She continued: “Naively, I would never have believed that two honest, hard-working adults could ever have found themselves in this situation in this country, through no deliberate fault of their own.
“Yes, I had heard various tales from some of my homeless acquaintances over the years but had always been of the opinion that somehow there must have been something they were not telling me. Now I know better.
“Only those who have actually faced homelessness can know the depths of confusion and misery in which you find yourself.”
Seaview stepped in to make sure Gloria and her husband did not end up on the streets.
This letter inspired me to sign up for The Big Sleep Hastings 2016 - a charity event which sees hundreds of people spend the night in a cardboard box on The Stade.
The inaugural event raised an astonishing £23,675 for the Seaview Project and so it made only perfect sense to bring it back for a second year.
Host comedian Steve Furst opened proceedings on stage, followed by live music from King Size Slim, Seaview Choir and The Rufus Stone Band.
The entertainment was open to the general public and dozens joined to dance, sing, clap and soak up the relaxed and jovial atmosphere.
Seaview chief officer Annie Whelan also took to the stage to thank those whose hard work and generosity ensured the event could go ahead.
Speaking about Gloria’s letter, she said: “It illustrated the fact that homelessness can happen to anybody, not just particular people.
“So many different things can impact on someone losing their home - unexpected life events, illness, trauma, job loss, family loss, bereavement, mental health, addiction. None of us are immune.
“If it doesn’t touch your own life directly, it may through a family member or a friend.
“When it does, receiving the right kind of support at the right time and in the right way makes the difference, not only in personal recovery and being able to move forward, but very often it can also be the difference between life and death.”
She continued: “Continuing cuts to public funding are happening at a time when needs are growing.
“This event last year not only gave us important support, it actually helped us to keep our services open.
“We can’t express how grateful we are that our community is pulling together again to help our frontline work. Thank you all so much.”
At 10pm, the cardboard city opened and 200 Big Sleepers piled through the gate to choose the box we would call home for the night.
Tomato soup and bread was served as people huddled around the fire to listen to the tunes of an acoustic guitar.
Then came the hard part. With apprehension and a whole load of blankets, we headed into our makeshift beds. Immediately upon lying down, it felt like no number of layers would make the hard concrete floor any more comfortable. Straight away, I knew this was going to be a long night.
But the worst was yet to come. The heavens opened in the early hours of the morning and if the sound of raindrops pounding onto the top of the box wasn’t enough to keep you awake, the cold rainwater seeping through the bottom of the box surely was.
The cardboard put up a good fight against the elements, but in the end it was no match for the rain and many boxes began to cave in and collapse after a few hours.
Most of the Big Sleepers were awake before the sunrise, unable to sleep in the rough conditions.
Cradling cups of tea and coffee, tired and damp, groups of people sat around reflecting on the night.
Many experienced conflicting emotions; relief, that the night was over and we could head back to our warm homes; pride, that we’d stayed the night and completed the challenge we set out to do; but the over-riding feeling, for me at least, was one of sadness, that for so many people, this is the norm.
Yes, we’d endured a cold, wet and miserable night and barely slept a wink, but we were lucky. We were lucky to even have the shelter of a cardboard box to guard against the elements. We were lucky to have clean toilets in Stade Hall we could use throughout the night. We were lucky to be given hot soup in the evening and porridge in the morning.
We were lucky we could go back to our homes and our families. We were lucky we could change out of our wet clothes into something warm and dry. We were lucky we could have a hot shower.
We were very lucky indeed.
For many, those are the luxuries in life, not the latest iPhone or gaming console.
The streets are unforgiving. The endless noise, the unpredictable conditions. Nobody should have to spend even one night sleeping rough.
As I was heading back to my car, I walked past a man curled up asleep in a bus shelter. At that moment, no matter how cold and tired I felt, I knew the whole experience had been entirely worthwhile as it had raised valuable money for a service which can provide a lifeline to so many vulnerable people at their time of need.
Right then, I knew I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
• So far, more than £20,800 has been raised for the Seaview Project. People have until the end of October to donate. Visit https://thebigsleephastings.com/fundraisers/maria-hudd.
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