Crisis At Christmas – In the bleak midwinter…a ray of sunshine

In mid-November, my girlfriend mentioned that she wanted to do something to help the homeless this winter. She was feeling what almost amounted to guilt about being able to go home to get warm, a luxury unavailable to some people. She wondered what the best way to help would be, and considered donating to charity in various ways. I suggested that we look at the possibility of donating our time by volunteering at a shelter or similar scheme, to help in a practical way. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while as well, and so it was in this spirit that we applied to volunteer at Crisis At Christmas, the scheme run by the charity Crisis.

A Crisis At Christmas guest enjoys Christmas dinner (Image courtesy of Crisis)

We filled out the forms online, chose our shifts, and awaited confirmation. We selected our venue and found an induction talk at a time that was convenient. Neither of us really knew what to expect from the experience, but both of us were looking forward to it.

The induction for first-time volunteers was held in a university lecture theatre. The talk was designed to flesh out the volunteers’ knowledge of the charity, its history and the logistics of the Crisis at Christmas scheme. I think that many people were like us in as much as they knew only that they wanted to help and that this was the right organisation to do that through, but very little else. We learnt of the origins of the scheme, the work that Crisis does during the rest of the year, and the multitude of services available to guests. The talk was given by some of the people who would be leading shifts around the centres – volunteers like us, except with experience. Crisis has a team of people who work for the charity full-time and organise the scheme as a whole, but everything involved in the week itself, and much of the preparation, is done by volunteers.

We left the talk with a greater sense of the organisation and what we might be doing when we got to the centre at Christmas time. It still seemed a bit abstract though, and meant that despite this information, I still felt slightly unprepared for my first shift, which was on the afternoon of the 23rd of December. When volunteering, you’re asked to choose two shifts on different days, and they mustn’t be within 12 hours of each other (i.e. you can’t choose Thursday Afternoon/Evening and then do Friday Morning). The shift times vary depending on whether the centre you’re working at is a Day Centre or a Rough Sleepers Centre. Rough Sleepers Centres, as the name suggests, have beds for those who usually sleep on the streets and need people to do shifts around-the-clock. The Day Centres open at 9:30am and close at around 9:00pm, with shifts from 8:30-4 and 3-10.

We arrived for our first shift and signed ourselves in, getting a name badge which identified us as volunteers. We had a short briefing from the shift leader, and were then assigned our first tasks. There are a wide variety of tasks available, from “gap duties” which means manning doorways to either keep guests out of certain areas or regulate the flow of traffic to places like the Advice Centre, to serving in the canteen or cleaning the toilets. My first task was to be in charge of the men’s showers; if a guest wanted a shower, I had to give them a towel and some soap, and then clean the shower when they’d finished. It was great fun – I got to spend some time chatting to guests whilst they waited for the showers, and I didn’t mind the cleaning one bit. At the induction, one of the shift leaders had said that she was far more diligent and excited by cleaning toilets at Crisis than she was at home because they knew the difference it made to people, which puzzled me at the time; I can now understand exactly what she meant.

Whilst on shower duty, I spoke to a guest who reminded me of just how instantly the problem of homelessness can strike. He had come to London from Yorkshire for Christmas with some money in his pocket, visited a casino and lost it all. He’d been living on the street for a week and was hoping, whilst at Crisis, to use the computer to email his cousin to ask him for the money for a train ticket home. It was a real “there but for the grace of God go I” moment for me, and it brought the whole experience to a new level.

After a brief respite for a cup of tea, we had more jobs given to us, and I undertook a variety of duties that afternoon. The time flew by, and all of a sudden I was being given my final task of standing outside to make sure there guests left the centre without any trouble. When our debrief had finished and the volunteers were allowed to go home, we were on a massive high. I enjoyed the afternoon more than I’d ever expected, and it certainly didn’t feel like I’d spent 7 hours there. I was looking forward to the next shift.

 A short video press release about Crisis At Christmas 2010

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day passed, and on Boxing Day morning, the two of us returned to the Day Centre, held at a school in North London, for our second and final shift of the season.  We were some of the first to arrive, and were immediately stationed at the entrance to the car park to greet those coming towards the centre and to make sure that only the people who were permitted to use the car park gained access to it. We were outside in the cold for nearly 90 minutes, but that was immaterial as we watched guests arriving, some of whom we knew had been in the cold of the night for a lot longer than that. We had missed the pre-shift briefing and division of labour because we were outside, but as soon had we come in to thaw out we were seconded to the showers. There was a much lower demand for the showers this time, but we did get the chance to help a few guests who needed other things, such as a toothbrush or a place to shave. The showers were directly opposite the hairdressers’ room, and many guests took the opportunity to book a haircut or have a manicure. These services are provided by skilled volunteers, and are just part of the wide range of feel-good services available to guests. It seems like a minor detail, a haircut, but the feeling of being pampered and the thought that your appearance is improved really brightens the day for many guests. Other services Crisis provides at its centres are the option for guests to see a doctor, dentist or optician, and for guests to receive advice from experts in housing and law, amongst other things, in how they might go about remedying their situations.

After a quiet 90 minutes on shower duty, I was tasked with making an inventory of all the food that the centre had, so that menus could be coordinated based on what was going to expire soonest. All of the food is donated and there were mountains to get through. The centre was short of volunteers for the day for some reason, with only 60 on site as opposed to the usual 90 for a shift, so for my final 4 hours, I had a gap duty near the entrance hall. Usually duties are swapped around after stints of about an hour, but with fewer volunteers than normal I didn’t mind not being swapped. Even that time flew, and before I knew it, it was 3 o’clock and the final hour. I was joined for this hour by another volunteer (gap duties are usually done in pairs), a 20-year-old student who had decided that with nothing to do at Christmas he would volunteer on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. He had absolutely loved it, and we swapped stories about the things we’d seen and what we’d got out of the experience.

We were relieved of our duties by the afternoon team, whose shift leaders remembered us from our first shift and greeted us warmly. After our final debrief, we were free to go, and I felt a slight sadness that my time there was over and a tinge of guilt that I was not helping on any of the final 4 days.

In reflecting on the experience, I can only say that I enjoyed it immensely. I had not expected it to be fun; I thought it would be challenging at times, I thought I might have to do things that I’d tolerate rather than be pleased to do. Not a bit of it. I cannot begin to describe what a pleasure it was to be there. I didn’t get to spend as much time talking with the guests as I’d have liked, but the duties that were required of me didn’t allow that, which was fine. I am only sorry I didn’t do it sooner, and will definitely be volunteering again next year. The guests were very appreciative and the spirit around the Centre was astounding, between volunteers and guests alike. I made friends with some of the volunteers, and acquaintances of some of the guests, and left the Centre feeling pleased to have contributed in whatever small way possible to making someone’s Christmas a little bit better. It’s a very difficult thing to reflect upon without seeming even a little bit patronising, but I learnt a great deal about people and how easily and quickly circumstances can change. It’s simple to say it when the experience is fresh in my mind, but I have a new appreciation for what I have and what others have been through. Though I’ve disguised it well, my experiences left me speechless.

For further information, please visit www.crisis.org.uk.

Reflecting and learning

I believe that it’s important to learn whatever you can from every situation you face; I don’t expect that this is a controversial opinion. One of my theories on life is that there is a “syllabus” of lessons life wants to teach every one of us, and each one of us has different lessons on that syllabus. Life presents opportunities for you to learn each lesson by putting you in situations from which you should learn; if you fail to learn lesson A from situation 1, life will present you with another situation where the lesson can be learnt, and will keep on doing so until you learn from your mistakes. So it’s always made sense to me to reflect on every situation in order not to make the same mistakes again, and to learn the lessons at the earliest possible opportunity.

In the middle of November, after I’d mentioned that this blog provided me with an opportunity to reflect on things I might have learnt, Jon Harman had a suggestion for me:

He said that every three to six months, creating a mindmap to show what you’d learnt was useful for making the learning process conscious. Having had a telephone interview this week the result of which didn’t go my way, I thought it was an opportune moment to do my first reflective mindmap.

So it turns out that recently I’ve learnt a few things, and had a few things that I already knew reinforced. The importance of preparation has been highlighted, not only from the perspective of preparing for a particular eventuality, but also mentally preparing for all eventualities, even those you cannot comprehend. This is something I obviously knew already, but I had forgotten the need to expect the unexpected. On a separate note, I’ve also learnt to scrutinise all of my past interviews for old mistakes before new ones – things that you learnt a while ago are easily forgotten if you don’t make the effort to recall them.

Jon mentioned that it might be useful to identify things I’d learnt through both formal and informal learning. Informal learning is a fascinating concept to me – the acceptance that non-academic learning never stops. Whether you are in formal education or not, there is no shortage of lessons to be learnt either from situations in your own life or from observing others. I’ve always counted my ability to reflect on life as one of my strengths. Sometimes it causes me problems, and I over-analyse and get myself into trouble, but most of the time it’s an invaluable skill that helps me to acquire wisdom (no laughing, those who know me – I do have some of that tucked away somewhere).

One of the things I like to think I know is myself, which may sound a bit odd, but simply means that I think I have a good level of self-awareness. This manifests itself in a number of ways, one tangible example of which is the way I responded to the suggestion Jon made and that you saw earlier on. Three to six months does sound like a reasonable interval for these mind maps. The trouble for me with leaving it that long, though, is that it doesn’t take account of my memory, which is akin to a colander. So knowing myself as I do, I have decided to note lessons down more often than that.

To me, this is a lesson in and of itself, and one of the most important to learn. As Polonius says in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true”. For all of the lessons I’ve learnt recently, in both a formal and an informal context, it is a lesson that I learnt long ago that is at the heart of it all.

Social Networking can be both Social and Networking…

“You’re on Twitter? What are you, an egotist?”
“No-one wants to hear what you’ve got to say for goodness sake”
“Isn’t it all people just writing ‘I’m having a cheese and pickle sandwich’? Who cares when someone’s having a cheese and pickle sandwich?”

These are all genuine responses I’ve had when I mention that I use Twitter (@AshleyConnick). They’re the kind of responses that I’m sure many of the more-than-145 million registered users of the social network have heard in their time. My last blogpost was about not telling people they’re objectively wrong, so of course I believe that people are entitled to their view. But I am writing this in order to try and leave them better-informed about the way Twitter works, and in doing so hope perhaps to change an opinion or two.

The deadline for my first piece of coursework on my Law Conversion course is approaching, so in honour of this I decided to do the piece of work. I started it one afternoon before moving on to other work and then napping pre-Day 2 of the Adelaide Test. At tea of Day 2 (4:40 am GMT) I was not tired and decided to resume work. I tweeted that I was going to relegate the cricket into the background in order to do my essay. “What’s the essay on?” came the question from two distinguished tweeters: David Allen Green of Preiskel & Co (@davidallengreen), who blogs under the name Jack of Kent (a must-read) (@JackOfKent), and Mike Semple Piggot, aka Charon QC (@charonqc), who amongst many things produces the wonderful “Insite Law” website, an invaluable legal resource. I replied that it was on a comparison of the rights and remedies available under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 with those available under the tort of negligence and contract law. There followed a discussion of the issues, with me gaining some valuable insights and knowledge. I was able to learn about resources to help me in my studies, about the practical impact of the legislation from the perspective of practising and experienced lawyers, and about books for me to read around the subject with. As CharonQC said at the time to David and me, “where else but twitter could three men be discussing Contract and watching the Ashes at 6.00 am – love it!” This is not something that many people contemplate to be what happens on Twitter – a useful conversation rather than a series of pronouncements with no engagement from others, which is the assumption.

A while ago I was quoted in a Guardian newspaper article by Neil Rose, who tweets as @LegalFutures, in an article called “Tweet success awaits the savvy lawyer”, in which he talked of the fantastic networking opportunities available online, and the great and inexpensive method of publicity it provides. There is no doubt that Twitter is a place for social conversation and no small degree of nonsense – any of you who have read my tweets may be comfortably of that opinion. But it is also a network of such opportunity. I use my twitter account as a newsfeed, a method of communication with people I would not normally have access to, a way to converse with people with similar interests and many other things besides.

The College of Law’s media director is one of the many people I have “met” via Twitter. Jon Harman, who tweets under the username @colmmu, is keen to move the teaching of law forward with technology. He and I conducted a webchat a couple of weeks ago, using a messageboard system that may replace the current ELITE website the College uses. He is as effusive as I am about the benefits of Twitter. “This is why I am keen to explore facilitating the connections,” he said to me after reading the discussions I’d had at 6am with David and Mike, “the knowledge is in the network!” He’s not wrong.

I shan’t pretend that Twitter as a website is solely a work-related entity. I shan’t pretend that it’s even that for me. But it has brought me many new ideas and many connections with people I could never have otherwise had. Whether it’s being able to ask Surrey’s opening batsman Michael Brown (@MichaelBrown80) how his rehab is progressing, discussing a Telegraph newspaper article with its author, Steve James (@sjamesjourno), whilst he is on the other side of the world, or talking to lawyers in Scotland, Leeds or even in my own city, Twitter has given me a great deal. We don’t always talk about law – but then at “networking drinks” or whatever the ‘traditional’ method of gaining these kind of connections is, is the topic of conversation always serious? We are connecting as people with a common interest and that is hugely valuable.

This may have seemed like a defence of what I choose to do with my time, but it isn’t; I will carry on Tweeting regardless of what people think, as I have done for more than 12 months and more than 8,500 bursts of 140 characters. It is an opportunity to show those who don’t understand the medium what it can do for you. The world is changing and moving forwards rapidly – this is one of the ways it is doing so. A discussion which runs parallel to my opinions blogpost is one I consistently have with my friend Leanne about how useful generalisations are. Here is another example of how I feel they are unhelpful: to say that Twitter is for egotists or the cheese and pickle sandwich-eaters of the world does not only those people who use the network a disservice, it also shows a closed mind to the possibilities of the system to the person saying it. I’m a person who likes to try to be in possession of all the facts before making a judgment. I don’t necessarily always achieve it, but that’s what I try and do. I feel that some people who have dismissed Twitter have done so before considering all the relevant information. If they were to use the network, they might be surprised at what, and who, they discover.

Pining for genuine opinions

A friend of mine was honoured with a place on the WordPress.com homepage recently with his blogpost on Dating Blogs and how they were self-indulgent (his post can be found here: DATING – FINE. WRITING ABOUT IT – NOT FINE. – by Josh Landy. It, and the rest of his blog, are well worth reading). It’s a post filled with some quite strong opinions on people who blog the minutiae of their dating lives for the consumption of the online community.

The way some people reacted to his blog raised my hackles, and so I wanted to write about a particular ‘pet hate’ of my own. I feel that a large number of people do not know the difference between expressing their own opinion and condemning someone else’s as wrong. If I had a pound for every time I have heard people say (and, in this modern world, seen people write) that someone is “wrong” for thinking a certain thing, I’d have no concern as to how I was going to pay my fees at law college.

Personally, I don’t think my opinion is any more or less valid than anyone else’s. How could I? I might think that the thought that has gone into my opinion is deeper or less deep than that which has gone into theirs; I might feel that their opinion offends me, either directly or indirectly, or that it might offend others. But how can I proclaim that someone is wrong for writing or saying what they think? I feel that this is where a great deal of hostility is born from – people expressing their own opinions in such a dogmatic manner that it immediately causes conflict. Notice that I used the word ‘conflict’ rather than the word ‘debate’. Once one side in an argument expresses an opinion that the other side is ‘wrong’, it ceases to be a genuine debate.

The word wrong can still be used – don’t misunderstand and think that I wish to restrict its usage – but it should be preceded with the words “I believe that you are…” rather than “you are…”.

My personal opinion on Josh’s blog was that it contained within it the very characteristics he despised in others’ blogs. He complained that he disliked it when an individual spoke on behalf of a gender, and then went on to justify why he felt it acceptable to speak on behalf of Arsenal fans. I have discussed this with Josh and because we are both rational individuals, we were able to come into the discussion with open minds and full knowledge of the fact that our opinions were just that. There are many other examples, many of which have been dealt with in a fairly severe manner by “citysidewalk” on her blog, found here: You said it was love for the first time! – by citysidewalk. I actually think that “citysidewalk” goes too far in her opinions as well, launching into a personal attack that I felt was not really called for.

Many of the comments on the original post, though, say that Josh “is wrong because…” before launching into their reasons for disagreeing. I can tell that what they actually mean is that they believe his opinion to be incorrect rather than that it is innately incorrect, but I am concerned that they themselves cannot make this distinction.

I just wish there was some way I could point this out to people without it seeming as though I was telling them they were objectively wrong…

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