Opinion with Seb Reilly: The mystery of the empty tent

Mystery of the empty tent

What would you do if an empty tent appears near where you live?

A few streets away my front door, a tent has materialised on a patch of grass. Though this is unfortunately becoming an increasingly common sight throughout Thanet, I only happened to stumble across this particular tent as I was walking that way. The door to the tent was open, but there was no one inside. Then I heard a voice say, “Have you seen that?”

I turned around to see a dog-walker a few metres away, one hand holding the dog’s lead, the other pointing towards the tent. The dog-walker told me that some people were living out of the tent. They would come by after sunset, apparently.

Now, my first instinct was to come back when the occupants of the tent were there, so I could say hello (from a responsible two-metre social distance), ask if everyone was well, and see if anyone needed anything. At the very least, I might be able to point in the direction of the RISE project, or Porchlight, or one of the many other support services available to people facing homelessness.

I asked the dog-walker if they had done any of that.

“I don’t go out in the dark,” the dog-walker said, “so I haven’t actually seen them.”

I asked how they knew the occupants come here in the evenings, if they hadn’t seen them. Then I found out something strange.

A lot of my neighbours—not necessarily on my street, but in the local neighbourhood, including the dog-walker—are part of an online group. They all talk about what is going on in the area, who forgot to put their bins out, when the bins were last collected, who needs a replacement bin, how to defend bins from the seagulls, and other bin-related gripes. They also gossip (a lot) about the states of buildings and gardens, bonfires, trees, dog poo, joggers, cyclists, and now they were talking about the tent.

I asked what was being discussed about the tent, and discovered that out of the hundred or so members of the group, only one had said they were going to check on the occupants. The rest of them were all complaining that the tent was in their neighbourhood and not in a different one. They were saying it brings the place down. They were acting like the elusive occupants weren’t people, but pests. Nefarious creatures that only come out at night. Vampires.

If you are facing homelessness, you are not vermin. You are not an evil being that sucks the life out of others. You are a person in a difficult situation, one any of us could face in the future. You deserve compassion, not vilification.

Unsurprisingly, I turned down the dog-walker’s offer to join this group. It is not something I want to be part of.

You could say that it’s not fair for me to judge the people in that secret neighbourhood group, but then they were judging the people in the tent without even asking for their side. How many other groups exist online, like that one? They could be a wonderful resource for sharing and helping others, supporting the community, but instead seem to be a collective rant targeting whoever doesn’t live up to unwritten standards. As someone who doesn’t care about those kinds of standards, let alone reach them, they can judge me similarly.

“Do unto others as they do unto you.”

That sounds fair to me.

It’s a quote from the Satanic Bible, and as good a quote as any to use to remind you I’m still here. Admittedly, I have been a little quiet of late, but there’s nothing like getting shortlisted for an award (for the second time) to remind a writer they have a job to do. I’m a Finalist for Kent Columnist of the Year 2020 at the Kent Press and Broadcast Awards. There are four finalists in my category, and three of them—Melissa, Jane, and myself—write for this paper. The odds are very much in The Isle of Thanet News’ favour, and all of us are rooting for each other as much as ourselves.

I get judged all the time: in my life, in my job, in my writing, for my opinions. As this column is an opinion—my opinion—it is therefore, by default, not right, as there is no absolute in a subjective variable. Opinion and fact are very different things. One is a personal view, the other is a proven truth. Confusing the two leads to all kinds of problems, which are unfortunately very common these days. Facts can only be changed with evidence, but opinions are perspectives based on emotional reaction.

This column will be judged, commented on, argued with, and rightly so. Someone forced to live in a tent, however, is not a matter of opinion.

I welcome the judgement of the judges of the Kent Press and Broadcast Awards. I welcome the judgement of my neighbours. I welcome your judgement on this column, on my opinion, and on my choice to include a quote from the Satanic Bible.

As for the tent, it remains a mystery. I went back in the evening but there was still no one around, so for now I’m walking that way regularly and keeping an eye on it. If I see anyone in it, or outside, I’ll go over and check they are alright. That’s what I would hope someone would do for me, if it was my tent.

What would you do if an empty tent appears near where you live?


  1. There used to be an alcoholic that roamed around Thanet and was sometimes found in Canterbury. Whilst out one evening I saw the person sitting in a shop doorway wrapped up in his dirty clothes and looking cold. I went to the only supermarket that was open, purchased two packs of sandwiches and 4 cans of beer, walked back to the man and handed my purchases over to him. I received a very grateful “Thank You” Walking past as I handed over my purchases someone said “What did you do that for”

    Perhaps it was or perhaps it wasn’t the alcoholics fault that he was in the position he was in. Humanity and kindness costs nothing but is well received.

    • Well done for feeding somebodies life threatening addiction, a retrospective enabler of the year award is winging it’s way to you.

  2. Congratulations on being up for an award! And I would go and find out who was in the tent. Why dont you do that and tell us their story?

  3. Congratulations Seb on being shortlisted for Kent Columnist of the Year 2020 for a second time!
    And, congratulations to The Isle of Thanet News for encouraging local writers and their opinions. It obviously works as three of the four nominations are writers for this newspaper.
    Keep up the excellent work!
    We may not be able to bring about significant change on a national level but we can and should reach out and look after people in our community.

  4. Interesting. I think I would have pinned a note to the tent saying I would be back at a certain time to see if they needed anything, or maybe leave something to eat and drink inside the door just in case.

  5. A tent appeared a few metres from my home a year ago, just as autumn was setting in. I did what any compassionate person would do and took them blankets and drinking water. Made them a hot drink, told them which one my door was and asked if they needed help with anything else. They were always pleasant over the next 6 months while they waited through the winter to be housed. Sometimes they knocked on my door to ask me to refill their water or see if I had an old pillow knocking about. We always stopped to chat and I think they appreciated having a friendly face around. I was a bit gutted when they moved on and left my old bedding flytipped – but hey – the council didnt give them a collection day or a seagull bag while they called my street home.

  6. I would be non judgemental about their situation and grateful that l didn’t have to rely on just a tent for shelter. People should be more willing to help out those less fortunate, instead of just hiding behind their keyboards or bitching and gossiping in their pathetic narrow-minded groups!

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