One evening around Christmas in 2010 I was standing outside a members club in Soho when I was approached for money by a homeless man in a wheelchair. After I handed him a few pounds he stayed for a chat. "See these?" He said proudly, pointing to a full set of decent looking teeth. " Crisis did this for me. They are amazing. They have Christmas dinner and they have dentists, and doctors and hairdressers. I got my haircut. They are the best charity. If you give money to anyone, give it to them." A few days later I looked them up online, donated some money, and signed up to receive their newsletters. I thought to myself that one day when I have some time, I would like to volunteer for Crisis.
It wasn't until Christmas 2012 that I had some time, so I signed up for four days. People volunteer at Crisis at Christmas for so many different reasons. I looked round at all the earnest faces in the recreation room at Hammersmith and City College. Some were good-looking young people, the kind you might find at one of those new wave churches where they play electric guitars. Others were jolly golden-oldies, Crisis veterans who had brought their own sandwiches. Mixed in were the arty types - painters, movie producers and musicians, and I guess I was in that category.
The staff were full of life, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and had seen it all. I had no idea what it was going to be like, but in the end it was a bit like speed-dating. They put you in pairs and you get rotated every hour or two. There must always be two people outside each station - the showers and the toilets, for instance - so you get the opportunity to chat to a wide and fascinating group of people over the course of a shift. It's actually a really nice way to meet new people.
We are told to refer to the people who come in only as ‘guests’ and not to give out our phone numbers or addresses.When they opened the doors, out from the icy cold wind came the guests - shuffling in, carrying bags and suitcases. I was stationed on the information desk, and the first thing most people would ask is where they can shower and get a haircut. Downstairs they had created a makeshift hair salon with volunteer hairdressers. There was a doctor and a chiropodist; the offer of a massage and other holistic therapies. Upstairs there was a very busy Q.C providing housing and legal advice. You could tell that the guests felt totally looked after at Crisis. They knew a lot of the veteran volunteers by name. They felt safe and supported there.
Crisis has been running this Christmas programme now for 42 years. I sat on my plastic chair outside the clothing store: the clothing donations were not large. Each guest is given a ticket, which entitles them to something from the clothing bank. A man came to me and asked me for a jacket. I ask his general size and I go in and look for something suitable. Except there isn’t anything except the sort of stuff you would find in a charity shop; brogues, cords, and thin polyester jumpers, a collection of jackets and macs. That night I called up all my male friends to get any old jackets or jumpers from them. It's amazing what happens to your perception when homeless men and women come to you for protective clothing, and you have nothing waterproof, nothing well made, nothing durable to offer them.
Over the next few days I worked in the hair salon, washing hair. This wasn’t new to me as this used to be one of my favorite jobs, aged 19 in SE24. Just I like I would in the salon, I greeted them, asked them if they wanted a cup of tea, and placed a towel around their neck. Checking the water temperature, I gently poured water over their heads. I would chat to them, ask them how they were here. I would hear story after story, about alcoholism, wives leaving, taking everything, and losing businesses. I could tell that for them a woman’s touch was rare, if it was tender, and as I washed each man's hair I felt tears rise up in my eyes.
When you're standing on the street, a homeless person may approach you for money. While people often do not resent giving money to homeless people, there may be some lingering judgment, because someone you don’t know wants money from you in the street, and this can sometimes feel invasive. At Crisis you see everything in a different context. You see the same people you would see on the street asking for money, except in this context they are not asking for money. At Crisis, you see proud and self-sufficient human beings, often thanking you for being there. These are people who, every day, survive living on tough streets in extreme weather conditions, aggressive hostels and vulnerable housing. They live with the effects of severely abusive childhoods, emotional breakdowns, sometimes coupled with debilitating addictive illness.
Upstairs in the recreation room, bodies are sleeping everywhere. Karaoke blasts in the background. A gay man from the Ukraine sings Adele. A group of charismatic old men play cards. An elderly Asian man waits for transport to take him to the limited number of beds for the night.
The hardest part of Crisis at Christmas is when it ends. Guests come every day for these two weeks over Christmas and New Year. Guests really struggle with going back out on to the streets. But Crisis’ work is all year round.
Anyone can come to their Crisis Skylight centres across the country, where homeless people can get everything they need to start rebuilding their lives and leave homelessness behind for good. It might start with a cup of tea and a chat, perhaps some painting or music. But people can get qualifications, lessons in numeracy and help finding a job. At Christmas, Crisis puts a lot of effort into persuading people to take advantage of their year-round work.
You can reserve a place for a homeless person at Crisis at Christmas this year. I’ve seen it myself – it really does make a difference.