Christmas at Crisis: Short Term, High Impact Volunteering at its Finest
For me, this Christmas season was much the same as any other. I watched old films and played Monopoly. I stayed up late and talked into the early hours. I connected with others.
I did this with my family and loved ones as usual – the difference this year was that I also spent two nights doing these things with homeless rough sleepers.
Every year, for the past 44 years, Crisis has provided warmth, food and shelter to thousands of homeless people at Christmas time. More than that, they offer some normality – a place where the people they support (always referred to as guests) are met with respect and dignity rather than averted eyes and awkward silence. They can access advice on housing, employment and immigration, or just have some space to relax or open up. In short, Crisis offers their guests connection and safety over the Christmas period.
To make this happen, Crisis recruits 11,000 volunteers each year for the Christmas period alone. Apart from the 2012 London Olympics, it’s year on year the biggest volunteering operation in Britain. I didn’t know this when I applied. I saw a Facebook appeal for volunteers to work night shifts, and took one shift before and one just after Christmas.
I’ve known people who’ve experienced homelessness, yet too many times have passed by people begging on the street without a glance, telling myself I’m too busy to decline or give, to make eye contact, to connect at all.
It was time to pay back the time I should have spent.
To keep us alert through the night, we were given new jobs to do every hour or so. This meant seeing slices of the whole vast operation working. I ran the coffee bar, patrolled the grounds and took stock in the store room, making sure we had enough blankets, towels, toothbrushes. Odd little things would suddenly give me a shock; like not being able to assume any of our guests would own a toothbrush of their own, or having to clear up extra carefully, as an almost empty bin bag might not be rubbish, but a guest’s entire possessions.
The best shifts were where we did the most important job: helping the guests to feel safe. That meant sitting in a darkened hall, listening to the breathing of hundreds of people who trusted us enough to fall asleep. The soft sound spoke of a peace that few of the sleepers’ get to experience for most of the year. One guest’s breath rattled painfully in his chest. He had seen a doctor that day; his ribs were broken. He hadn’t known before then.
Many guests stayed up through the night, used to catching sleep for a few hours here and there. We talked, played games, swapped stories. I taught one guest, Ilyas*, the rules for Scrabble, and helped him note down any new words he was unfamiliar with.
‘This is really good for my English’ he said happily, fishing though the bag of letter tiles.
‘Look – I am scrabbling!’
Another guest spent the night making perfect, scaled up copies of maps – sweeping line drawings of mountain ranges, rivers, the outlines of Romania, India, Morocco.
‘They’re beautiful’ I told him.
He smiled and shrugged.
‘You have a real talent.’
Smile, shrug. I wasn’t sure if he hadn’t understood or just didn’t feel like talking.
Some guests did want to talk: about running away from an abusive home at seventeen; about the deeply loved children who wouldn’t see them; about drugs and drink and prison. What struck me the most was how these guests felt able to share their stories with me, someone who might awkwardly ignore them on the street. It felt natural and normal. Just people being together.
At the end of our Scrabble game, Ilyas said ‘In a few days, this is finished. Where do we go then? There are hundreds of people here and then, out. Where will they go? Where will I go?’
I told him that I didn’t know, but I’d try to find out. I flagged down a senior volunteer, my heart thumping in my chest, hoping desperately for something to tell him, for somewhere he could be. Fortunately, they were able to refer him on to a new shelter, and he was told how to access Crisis’ Skylight services, available all year.
It took me a while to remember where I’d heard of Skylight before. It came to me a few days later, as I discussed my experiences volunteering at Crisis at Christmas, and argued that homeless people could be helped off the street for good, even in the most extreme cases.
I talked about a student I used to support in my job at a college. Beaten into a coma before even hitting his teens, he fell into homelessness and crack addiction, starting a cycle of streets, hospital, prison, streets that went on for years. Finally, he started going to a place called Skylight. He took art and IT classes. He got help to slowly get off the drugs. Eventually he got somewhere to live, and support to apply for his course at the college where I worked.
He had a great personality. Last I heard, he’d been accepted onto an art degree.
‘So,’ I said, ‘people can turn it around. They just need the right support.’
And I thought about Ilyas.
I really feel my volunteering with Crisis made an impact, and hope to apply again next year. More than that though, I hope my approach to homeless people I see on the street is more thoughtful. You can’t help everyone, but you can at least acknowledge everyone who asks.
We could all do with connecting more often, and being human together.
*Names have been changed