Why I (almost) slept rough outside the UNs climate conference

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By William Thomson, Gallus Events

Andrew Funk is waiting for me at the Feria de Madrid metro station. It's cosy here among the bustling commuters, and the trains give off their own heat. Tonight is all about keeping warm.

"These have finally defrosted," he says, offering me one of his hands before, to help keep warm no doubt, giving me a cuddle. "I've been shooting this video outside the Feria and my hands went numb, it's going to be a cold one tonight.”

I'm playing catch-up as he talks.

"The head of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals, there are 17 of them set by the United Nations) in Spain has agreed to share a video about our sleep-outs and our work to support the homeless, so I have to finish this tonight" he says, as he fumbles on his iPhone trying to insert text onto a hastily edited video.

I've been with him less than sixty seconds and I already know about his day. Questions are often superfluous with Andrew. Standing quietly next to him, leaning against the ticket machine, is Jose. Despite co-starring in the video, he doesn't seem to be suffering as much as Andrew. As someone who spent years sleeping on the streets, he is clearly more used to the cold.

Andrew and Jose are in Madrid to protest - and to raise awareness about those in our society who, through social exclusion, end up sleeping on the streets. Their protest takes the form of a sleep out. This time, two nights in full view of the thousands of delegates attending COP25, the UN Climate Change Conference, being held at Feria de Madrid, on the city's outskirts. Tonight is the second night of their protest and it's going to be cold. Freezing fog has enveloped the Feria buildings and pavilions for most of the day. Sleeping outside in these conditions brings moisture and cold. Sleeping bags get wet, and then go crusty.

The number one UN SDG is to end poverty, and Andrew pushes this message at some of the most important events across the globe. Jose sometimes joins him but occasionally it is just too cold to sleep outside: not when you don't have to. He's had long enough to know what it's like. Me on the other hand, well I am new to this.

I've decided to join the protest and spend a night on the street opposite the conference. As a warming world pushes more people from their homes and into homelessness, the time and the place couldn't be more appropriate.

My one night on the streets is really only going to be about six hours, but I've been thinking about, and planning, those half-a-dozen hours for at least a week.

The first decision was to keep it from my partner and the kids. I didn't want them to worry. Those who sleep on the streets experience an increased chance of violence. Every extra night brings an increased chance of harm.

Andrew has spent over 75 nights outside in silent protest.

"I've been lucky" he told me, but he knows his luck will at some point run out. "If someone wants to hurt you they will, they just have to wait for you to fall asleep. Tucked up in a sleeping bag you may as well be in a straight jacket."

I look at my newly purchased sleeping bag, still constrained in its tight, shiny, green cover, with a new sense of dread. Andrew's already told me it's a warm weather sleeping bag, so now it appears to be a warm weather restrainer.

Jose's sleeping bad is tattered and stained. That alone tells a story. I don't have the courage to ask Jose about his experiences on the streets. I think I know. Jose has a face that you can read like a novel, a hardback one.

When you spend time with people who have experienced poverty, their age is often so difficult to guess that it isn't even worth trying. Back in my home city Glasgow, I caught up with someone I went to school with who looked closer to my father's age.

The sleeping bag was a mistake. Assuming my Scottish blood meant I was impervious to the cold was another. So here I am, dressed like I am attending a late night football match: one where you can fight off the cold with a cup of coffee.

I rarely get cold. My oldest son is the same. It's in the blood. So I have opted for a few thin layers with the top layer being the only waterproof one. "You better hope this fog lifts", Andrew looks again at my sleeping bag and shakes his head, "you might think you won't be cold but remember you aren't moving, the cold doesn't have to catch you, you are sitting there waiting for it."

I decide to eat late and heartily and wander around Madrid looking for sustenance. No coffee or alcohol. Maybe Thai, or Korean. The absurdity of my plans all of a sudden hit home. My casual, well-funded preparation couldn't be further removed from someone who has no option but to sleep on the streets.

Often those on the street go to sleep hungry and dehydrated. Those who haven't raised the price of a meal from begging, may have arrived too late at the soup kitchen. I am told that time goes at its own pace on the streets. My 20 Euro meal would appear more like a feast to someone not choosing to sleep rough.

you might think you won't be cold but remember you aren't moving, the cold doesn't have to catch you, you are sitting there waiting for it."

So when I arrive to join Andrew and Jose, my brain has been turning over for hours and my stomach is full and fluttering.

We move off and into the cold. I am set for my night opposite the Feria de Madrid, or so I think, Andrew has made other plans.

As CEO of Homeless Entrepreneur his brain fires like a Catherine Wheel. One of his recent decisions was to help me run my homeless hackathon in Barcelona in July 2020. He very quickly helped me add what has become the single most important objective of my six events: to create meaningful, decent work for two people currently experiencing homelessness.

Andrew Funk was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. He moved to Barcelona after college and hasn't looked back. Now he is driven to make his vision a reality: to make things better for those living sin hogar, as we say in Barcelona.

The fall out from the financial crisis has taken its toll even in Spain's wealthiest region of Catalonia. The migrant crisis has also led to an increase of those without shelter in Barcelona. The events industry has had an impact too.

The number of affordable properties for rent has decreased since the boom in tourism. Barcelona is among the top European destinations for conferences and exhibitions and the demand for casual accommodations has depleted the housing stock.

So Andrew's events ensure the plight of the homeless is kept on the radar of the city. Six times a year, he sleeps out in the streets of Barcelona at what he calls his 'little Barcelona events'.

However Andrew is truly international in focus, homelessness doesn't respect borders, and it is the high profile events calendar where he looks to add his fringe events.

"Would you like to come to Davos and sleep out there?" he asks as we head up the Metro elevator, my eyes are drawn once again to my 'comfortable in 20 degrees' sleeping bag. Swiss mountain towns in winter are not its natural environment. "If it's OK, I will do tonight and see after that", I bluff. "Well that's one of the reasons I ask, we won't be sleeping out tonight" he responds.

It turns out that I didn't know all about Andrew's day after all.

It started early, noisily, and dangerously. Despite explaining his reasons for sleeping opposite the Feria and his right to peaceful protest, Andrew and Jose were disturbed at 4.30am and asked, or rather ordered, to move on by the police night commander.

[caption id="attachment_7762" align="alignnone" width="300"]

Andrew Funk, right, talks to the media outside COP 25 at Feria de Madrid[/caption]

In fact, they had been given a choice. Move further away under their own steam, or do it in the back of a police van.

Now like every iconoclast, Andrew likes authority as much as he likes waiting around. Words were exchanged, but the balance of power was clear. Jose and Andrew moved to another area and were told, in the way only Spanish riot police can, that they would face the same choice should they appear again tomorrow.

They eventually found a marble floor to sleep on, having left behind their scraps of cardboard, essential for insulation. Jose's older bones had started to ache, but using Andrew's back as support he had somehow managed to drift back to sleep. At seven am, with their sleeping bags crunching from the dense moisture in the fog, their protest in Madrid and another one of Andrew's 'little events' had come to an end. Cut short by one night.

And my night outside in protest would have to wait.


Homeless hackathons

A series of three-day hackathons, aimed at transforming the lives of homeless people in cities across the world, will open with a hackathon in Edinburgh over the weekend of 20-22 March.

William Thomson, managing director of organisers Gallus Events said: “The lack of a safe and secure home is an issue for millions of people across the globe. Homelessness is a global crisis.

"Hackathons have a proven track record of positively impacting the communities they serve and a Homeless Hackathon packs a big enough punch to design and develop practical solutions to prevent homelessness”

Other Homeless Hackathons are taking place in:

Montreal,  26/27/28 JUNE

Barcelona, 10/11/12 JULY

Dundee, 9/10/11 OCTOBER

London, 6/7/8 NOVEMBER

Taking place over a 72 hour period (Friday night to Sunday afternoon), hackers come up with innovative and creative ways to solve real world problems.

The Homeless Hackathons will be a spark for innovative solutions to help reduce homelessness and rough sleeping, and to provide support for those in the homeless community.

The hackathon will bring together 100 people from across the IT and digital community, creative industries and local and national government, as well as the charity sector.

Jamie Cooke, Head of RSA Scotland added: “With two hackathons taking place in Scotland they are an incredibly important and timely opportunity. As economic insecurity increases and the impacts of austerity become ever more evident, it is unsurprising that the homelessness levels have been rising.

I am delighted to support the hackathons as a powerful response to this unacceptable state of affairs - by bringing together tech savvy young people and those who have lived experience of homelessness, the hackathons will challenge the status quo and bring innovative new ideas to the table. I can't wait to see what comes out of them."

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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