Three people are on the top floor of a multi-storey car park. The sky is blue.

They truly represent our values of being a Force For Good, Brilliant With People, United, Trustworthy, and Responsive.

“It’s about trying to keep warm and safe”

It was already light when I parked outside Matthew 25 (not a coded reference to one of the people we help, but an outreach centre) in Eastbourne just before 5am. Neil knocked on my window and I knew I’d found the right place. I also knew it was handy I’d grabbed one of the kids’ hoodies on my way out of the door – it’s pretty cold at that time, even on a late Spring day.

We met Albert and Helen in the car park across the road and climbing into the back of Helen’s car while Albert talked us through the plan for the morning and directed Helen to the first spot.

We jumped out at a park and started the walk around the perimeter looking for anyone sleeping in the hedges or secluded spots. This stop was thanks to a call to StreetLink, a person had been reported to be sleeping there, but we found no-one. Following the pattern that would emerge for the morning’s work, we all got back into the car and Albert navigated while talking us through the next steps, and with Helen at the wheel.

We made our way along the seafront and checked in each of the shelters, and around the hedges of each of the green spaces. The team knew these were regular spots. As someone who’d arrived in Eastbourne after a night in safety in a warm bed, it was picturesque, but so cold with the sea wind.

We came across two gents in shelter number 1, one, more up for a chat, the other snuggled down in his sleeping bag and not keen to interact. They had all their stuff in there. We wondered what they’d do with it when they headed off for the day… and what they’d do with the day. With no home base or workplace to go to, there’s no direction and nowhere to stop and relax. It’s about walking, trying to keep warm and safe, trying to keep your stuff warm and safe, and trying to work out where the next meal will come from.

We stopped at the disabled toilet which is relatively protected, with walls and roof and a door. Albert knocked and called but we got no response this time. He told us that even if he had, he’d chat from the doorway and not head inside. He’s a big lad, but it’s not safe to be trapped inside a confined space with someone that may be vulnerable, angry, and violent. I tried to imagine settling down inside a public toilet for the night, and that feeling like my safest option.

Feeling like it must be lunchtime, in fact at around 08:00, we parked by the NCP. Neil assured the team we’re fit enough to make it up the 12 flights to the top, so we could work our way back down again. Here the car park security had given the Rough Sleepers Outreach team a call to let them know someone had camped up in level 9. We made our way down the levels, and there they were – two tents tucked away in the corner, out of the way. Two smart looking bikes parked outside and a few clothes, bags and bits stacked up around the place. Albert approach and out of the tent appeared two men, friendly enough but not hugely chatty, I heard a woman’s voice from inside, “Hang on, I need to get dressed”. There were two other people inside that I didn’t see or hear.

Next, we were to head up to the Downs, Beachy Head, where Albert had found a couple of men previously after a report. We headed up and up out of town and finally stopped at a windswept layby, so traipsed across the field to a wooded patch. If the seafront was cold, this was another level!

Two people - a man and a woman - are walking on the green downs. The sea is ahead of them and the clouds are moody.

We made our way through the brambles and found two tents neatly set up in a glade with a little fire pit and bags tied up. Neil and I had been discussing the relative ‘merits’ of country versus urban rough sleeping. This is where I’d head if I had to sleep out, away from the noise and the people in town, but as Neil pointed out, further away from food, heat and conveniences.

A woman with dark curly hair, wearing jeans and a grey hoodie, walks behind someone in a very grassy, shrubby path.

Our most chatty visit, one man woke up smiling and grateful for the visit. He told us his story – he’d lost everything and everyone during lockdown – a family member had died, he was self-employed and couldn’t work, he’d lost his house. It could have happened to any of us. He was eloquent and well spoken, he had plans, he’s been volunteering and helping out in the garden at Matthew 25. He didn’t want help right now, he was clearing his head and living off the land. He no longer considered himself an addict. I felt positive for him and his future.

I’d wondered how people would react to us and imagined anger or hostility. There was none of that. Albert has such a natural way with people he just chats, asks how they are, gets down on his haunches to chat to people on the floor, has an open posture and is kind without being patronising on condescending.

After a couple of hours in, I found myself looking on benches and in hidden spots for people that could be homeless. It’s interesting how similar a rough sleeper looks to a builder off to work for the day. A tip is not to say, “Are you sleeping rough?”, but, “We’ve had reports of someone sleeping rough around here, have you seen anyone?”

Our last visit was the hardest. Bright daylight now, gone 9am, Albert and Helen talked with evident, heartfelt concern in their eyes about the, quite frankly, impossible situation he’s in – a man with some learning difficulties reported to be living under the underpass near the supermarket.

He’s from Brighton, so the council in Eastbourne don’t provide funds to help him, he must go back to Brighton for that. In Brighton, the only people he knows are the people he shared his crack addiction with. So, when he gets back there, he promptly makes plans to get to relative safety in Eastbourne again.

Alas, he’s particularly fond of candles and he uses them for light and warmth at night. In his tiny tent, filled with all his worldly possessions, he leaves the candle burning at night. That’s how we found him, in the shade and behind the brambles, with the car noise muffled a little by the concrete. In his tent, in his sleeping bag with his candle burning on a tissue centimetres from the fabric of the bag. It can only be a matter of time before it sets the tent alight. But it’s safer than the crack house in Brighton at least.

I was lucky enough to go out with the Move on and Outreach Team. They truly represent our values of being a Force For Good, Brilliant With People, United, Trustworthy, and Responsive.

Please remember to visit StreetLink and register any potential rough sleeper you see when you’re out. It’s the best way to get the right support for vulnerable people.

Southdown’s Outreach Workers work within the Eastbourne, Lewes, Wealden, Hastings and Rother areas, engaging directly with people who are sleeping rough. Outreach Workers check on people’s wellbeing, encourage them to seek support and arrange emergency accommodation.