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.

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