December nights in Times Square provide the typical holiday offerings one might see in a Hallmark movie. Sparkling decorations adorn the sidewalks, actors in cartoon costumes don Santa Claus hats and pose for selfies with tourists, and nondescript Christmas music seems to play endlessly, coming from nowhere in particular and yet everywhere at once.
But there was a different spectacle to behold for those who visited the heart of New York City’s theatre district on Saturday night. Families, sprawled across cardboard and burrowed in sleeping bags, spending their night sleeping out in Times Square.
“I’m nervous about the rats,” Jeanette Guzman, who came to the sleep out from Queens with her entire family, told The Independent. “But we want to feel what it’s like, and what homeless people go through sleeping on the streets … and also to raise funds.”
The event was put on by the World’s Big Sleep Out, an annual initiative that brings awareness to the 100 million homeless and displaced people worldwide, while taking in donations for both local and international charities. This year saw thousands of participants and celebrities joining the cause around the world, from Helen Mirren, who read bedtime stories to participants in Trafalgar Square, London, to Will Smith, who performed his theme song to the acclaimed TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in Times Square.
As participants in Manhattan spent the night in near-freezing temperatures and under the bright lights — artificial stars that never dim, even in the morning hours — the reality of just how difficult it is to sleep outside became more clear. What’s more, the attendees were provided sleeping gear, and came plenty-bundled in layers of fresh, warm clothes; obviously, the experience is nowhere-near similar to what many of the city’s 60,000 homeless people endure on a nightly basis.
“I’ll tell you what: if you look around New York City, there are loads and loads of vacant luxury apartments that we didn’t need … while there are 60,000 people homeless”, said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who was in attendance at the event and spoke to the crowd about housing being a human right.
He added that, while “some people might think it’s gimicky” to sleep out for one night, “what’s not gimicky” is raising funds to combat homelessness, an increasing issue across New York City in recent years, as reports indicate the homeless population could rise by 5,000 in 2022.
The World Sleep Out was started by Josh Littlejohn, who began the initiative as part of his efforts to eradicate homelessness in Edinburgh, Scotland. Mr Littlejohn told The Independent he became active in the cause after a homeless man came to his cafe in the country’s capital city looking for work.
“It was sort of by accident, after the young man came in and asked us if he could have a job, that we became more immersed in the issues,” he said.
Mr Littlejohn’s ideas soon expanded: he helped found a chain of eateries that donate the entirety of their profits to social causes, and his sleep out campaign continued to grow.
He decided to call New York City’s parks department on a whim one day to see how he could somehow acquire permits to host a sleep out in the Big Apple. Inspired by the city’s “can do” attitude and a few “random” meetings — including one with the ex-chief of staff to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — he was hopeful about his prospects. Still, he never imagined the city would grant a permit for a sleep out in Times Square.
“To my great surprise and real delight, they signed off on us closing down the entire stretch of Times Square”, he said. “It’s kind of one of those things that’s been happening a lot with this campaign, very serendipitous.”
The World Sleep Out aims to raise $50m (£38m) in donations for charities including the Malala Fund, the Institute of Global Homelessness and more. Mr Littlejohn has also established a new charity called the World’s Big Sleep Out Trust. All of the donations raised in the US as part of the trust would be managed by UNICEF USA.
Though the total numbers have not yet been counted, Mr Littlejohn attributed Times Square with helping 2019 become the biggest World Sleep Out yet.
“We’re really grateful to New York as a city because without Times Square, would we have gone on to secure 52 cities?” he said. “Probably not … it really had a catalytic effect. We’re grateful for New York for being at the centre of it.”
Joshua Mazediak-Amey, who was visiting from the UK and with a group of interns at the United Nations attending the Times Square event, told The Independent: “I believe it’s important that those who work for the UN show the fact that we’re committed to actually getting on the ground and being with people … that we are willing to come and be a part of things when they’re sort of on-the-ground movements like this opportunity tonight.”
“I’ve never done anything quite like this”, he added. “I’m excited, it’s great to be here with so many other people … it’s a little bit chilly, we’re trying to stay warm, but it’s a great opportunity.”