Last night I was one of approximately 80 people to sleep rough outside County Hall in protest at Cornwall Council's plans to slash the supporting people budget by 40%. The supporting people service funds accommodation for homeless people as well as advice and care at home and projects such as the Foyer Network.
There is a dispute about the amount of money we have received from Government for supporting people. The raw figures suggest we have got a similar amount to last year but there are effects such as damping (broadly speaking - the Government feels Cornwall gets too much money and takes some back) and a random extra grant to take into account. What is clear to me, however, is that our grant from Government has not been cut by anything like 40% and we cannot continue to provide the levels of service we do now if we are to impose such a draconian cut.
And so I was keen to join last night's protest alongside fellow Lib Dem councillors Ann Kerridge and Derris Watson and Lib Dem MP Stephen Gilbert. Other rough sleepers were some of the service providers and their clients - people who have experience of sleeping rough for long periods, not just a single night. There were also a further 50 or so people who came along to support the campaign but did not stay the night.
The experience was illuminating. We had many facilities that true rough sleepers don't enjoy. We had the acquiescence of the Council itself which allowed us to stay under part of the Council building, we had portaloos provided by Brandon Hire, tea and coffee provided by the couple who run Cosgarne Hall's kitchen and, most crucially, the support of John Coventry who runs Cosgarne and who made sure we were all safe and well throughout the night. Real rough sleepers have little in the way of these services and often suffer as a result.
It was really valuable to be able to talk to the people who run homeless services in Cornwall as well as some of the people who use them. I learned a huge amount about the problems they face and became more determined than ever to seek to overturn the budget cut.
We arrived between 6 and 11pm and bedded down around midnight. I can't say it was easy to get to sleep, even with 79 bodies generating heat around me. We had managed to pick a night when temperatures fell below freezing and layers of clothes and sleeping bags didn't quite keep the edge off.
I suppose I slept about three hours overall and woke up for good at 6am.
It was not an enjoyable experience, but it was very enlightening. I know that I've got a warm bed in a safe and secure house to go back to tonight. An estimated 125 people in Cornwall won't have that option tonight and, if the proposed 40% budget cut is approved by full council tomorrow, then that number can only grow.