Cadets, fire officer and an Evening News reporter brave a night sleeping rough on Norwich’s streets
Facing bitter November temperatures and armed with sleeping bags, cardboard boxes and limited food supplies, a group of seven brave cadets along with Norfolk's chief fire officer, Nigel Williams, took to the streets to learn first hand what it is like to be homeless.
Operation Noctis, led by group manager Richard Herrell from Norfolk fire and rescue service, saw Mr Williams and other senior fire officers join the Wymondham Fire Cadets outside the Forum in Norwich to experience a night on the streets.
The event started at Bishopbridge House, a hostel managed by St Martin's Housing Trust in Norwich, when the cadets donated 10 street survival packs and listened to homeless people tell their stories. The packs included a fluorescent vest, cutlery, a first-aid kit and food.
Mr Herrell said: 'They were supposed to create four packs but they have exceeded themselves and they have 10. It's not about sustainable living, it is about a short period of time.
'We have learned a lot about homeless people from colleagues at St Martin's Housing Trust. The project has enabled us to see the challenges homeless people face from many different perspectives.'
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The youngsters, aged between 13 and 16, were then tasked to find an area in the city where they thought they would be safe to sleep. They then revisited the places when darkness had fallen to realise the dangers they posed.
The teenagers spent Thursday evening helping at the Salvation Army soup kitchen in the Haymarket, facing different staged scenarios such as a conflict in an alleyway and walking alone through the subway at the top of St Stephen's Street.
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Mr Herrell said: 'We did what we set out to do: it was a really good experience. I hope the cadets have learned some valuable life skills.
'Next time they see a person on the street, we want the cadets to think that the homeless person might not have had a choice.'
Wymondham High pupil Christie Howlett, 13, said: 'We did have a preconceived idea about what a homeless person was before the exercise. My view of homeless people has changed. This has taught me not to be so judgmental.'
The cadets learnt about the difficulties in finding a suitable place to stay and how vulnerable and alone they would feel if they were not together.
Mr Williams said: 'It's also important not to forget the mental health problems - there is nowhere else to go and no companionship.'
Fourteen-year-old AJ Harmer, who also goes to Wymondham High, said he would not like to do the exercise on a Friday or Saturday night because it would be too dangerous.
Ryan Harmer, 16, who is studying at Easton College, said: 'The most difficult part was keeping warm. It was pretty much how I thought it would be but it would be a lot worse if you were on your own.'
Rebecca Gray, assistant cadet leader, said: 'We are really proud how well the cadets coped. They all got stuck into the tasks which were set for them and I think each of them learned something which they have taken away with them. It really gave them an insight into how some people are not as fortunate as they are.
'I'm impressed with how well they all coped sleeping out in front of the Forum. When it was first suggested that we carry out the sleep out I think some of the cadets thought it would be in the summer so it was a shock for them when we told them the date, however they all made sure they were prepared.'
An initiative designed to help homeless teenagers and reunite Norfolk families starts today.
The new project, commissioned by Norfolk County Council, will work with more than 100 young people over three years who are living in Norwich and south Norfolk, aged between 16 and 17 and homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Last year, the council successfully bid for �120,000 of government cash to support the new social-work pilot scheme that will reduce some of the strain on its social workers so that front-line staff can help even more vulnerable children in the county. The council's cabinet agreed to target the funding at homeless 16- and 17-year-olds in Norwich.