When I arrive on a bitterly cold Thursday afternoon at the bet365 stadium Steve Hunt, Fundraising Manager for the Stoke City Community Trust, escorts me through the media entrance and onto an eerily empty concourse where, in a little over 24 hours, guests will arrive for the Big Sleep Out 2020.
The shutters are down on the food and drink stalls which, on a matchday, would usually be lined with hopeful Potters fans who have paid for the privilege of watching their club battle at the lower end of the Sky Bet Championship.
I am not here to watch O’Neill’s man attempt to climb away from the drop zone on this occasion, though, as a different kind of safety is on the agenda.
“We’re only a couple of pay checks from being homeless ourselves” explains Hunt, “A lot of people think it’s just because of drugs and alcohol, but it’s not”.
For the Trust’s fifth annual sleep out, people from the community and further afield will raise money by sleeping out at Stoke City’s stadium.
Homelessness is an issue which came to the fore on a national scale at the end of 2019, when housing charity Shelter announced there are 320,000 people living homeless. Hunt confesses that to have 250 people showing up to sleep rough for the night to raise awareness about the issue represents a stark contrast from 2015’s event, when 7 people bedded down in the Franklin Stand.
“Every year we get more and more people taking part. I was happy when I got to 200 sign ups, because I didn’t think we’d get to that point, then we got to 220 and I thought ‘oh it would be nice to do 250’ and we did that”
You would be mistaken if you thought the Franklin Stand would provide much shelter from the cold. The wind whistles onto the concourse from entrances to the stands as Hunt enthuses about the effect the Big Sleep Out has had in Stoke-on-Trent and on the football community in general.
“This is the first year that homelessness has gone down in the city so with what we do and what other people do we must be doing something right, because there are fewer people on the streets.
“Now there are a lot of football clubs all over the country who do the same thing. I think we were the first to do it when we were in the Premier League, so it’s good that everyone is taking note of what we are doing.”
Hunt is reflecting on the fact that homelessness in Stoke appears to have halved. The annual estimate, carried out by the council on a single night in the city in November, showed there were 16 people sleeping rough, down from a peak of 34 in 2018.
He has been pleasantly surprised to see a diverse range of people supporting the cause, too, and concedes that the occasion has become an opportunity for like-minded individualise to catch up.
“People say is it all Stoke supporters and it isn’t. In the past we’ve even had Celtic supporters come down. It’s a mixture of everybody, this year we have them as young as 11 for the first time and the oldest one, I far as a I know is ‘Nello’ -Neil Baldwin- who has done it every year.
“Obviously the people who are here are all in small spaces so they all get to make new friends. We’ve got a few people who have done every single year coming tomorrow.
“Some bring games, some just have chats. A couple of years ago we had a couple of 17 and 18-year-olds and they had their exams to do so they were literally bedding down most of the night in their books, so everything goes on.
🔴⚪ Big Sleep Out— SCFC Community Trust (@scfc_community) February 28, 2020
As we countdown to the start of the #BigSleepOut, Stoke City legend and match day co-host @chris_iwelumo sends his good luck wishes.
You can donate using the link below….https://t.co/D5yBe0vUjn pic.twitter.com/vID4dQ6DCU
Some people even forgo the scarce shelter that the concourse provides, opting instead to brave the elements outside the turnstiles.
The reward for lasting the night? Breakfast, of course.
“We have tea, coffee and soup throughout the night. Then, next morning, if they manage to get any sleep, there’s a hot bap for them in the morning to finish it off!”
Hunt laughs as he admits getting any sleep is easier said than done.
“Oh, snoring certainly does happen. Usually it’s one of the members of the Stoke City Community Trust team as well. A couple of years ago one of them kept everyone up for most of the night.”
It is easy to get lost in the conversation, but remembering the reason why hundreds of people will descend on the bet365 is important. The Trust won’t know for a good time yet how much money has been raised, but the fact that the area is rallying round the vulnerable in their city is indicative of a real community.
“It shows that the people of Staffordshire actually know what is going on in their county. They see it a lot more at night time when the homeless people are trying to bed down for the night, and they realise, they don’t differ to you and me.”