Crisis at Christmas
January 17, 2017 Chris Sandilands
Oxbow Partners gives each employee two volunteering days a year, separate from holiday. You can do what you like, but it has to be for the good of the world.
This Christmas I spent two days working in a homeless shelter. I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d write a blog about it in the hope that maybe one or two readers might consider getting involved next year.
Before I start, let me be clear about one thing. I’m by no means some kind of Very Good Person. I’ve never done anything like this before, and I’m certainly not the medical student who decided to sleep rough for a month over Christmas to raise awareness and money. His article in the Guardian is quite remarkable. In fact, I only did it because my girlfriend was doing it and I’d have felt like a Very Bad Person if I had stayed at home.
It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I turned up for my first shift on 29 December, the penultimate day of the ten-day shelter. Would the smell be overwhelming, would the “guests” (as they are called) be threatening, would I accidentally stab myself with a hidden needle?
Well, not a bit of it. My first task was to help in the computer area. Here, twenty or so mostly men and some women were queuing patiently to get on the computers. But most overwhelmingly, not a single one of them “looked homeless”. In fact, the vast majority looked like any other person you’d see on the tube in the mornings and they were all jumping onto Facebook to interact with friends.
Indeed, the person who looked “most homeless” (a somewhat cantankerous hunched man with a large beard, a crutch and several plastic bags, and not a computer user) turned out to be a Romanian émigré, who spoke six languages and had worked in the UK for 25 years before retiring last year on a pension that was insufficient to pay his rent. It is an uncomfortable reminder that for us professionals there is, as a rule, only so far we can fall; for others the fall can be much deeper.
This made for an emotional few days, which cannot easily be summarised in a short blog.
There were the older men with black eyes, which educated me about the violence that is an overlooked characteristic of living on the street. Paul, a volunteer who had been on the streets and a guest for twenty seven years before being housed by Crisis a year ago, commented in an emotional address about his move off the streets that “the rules of the street were getting tougher every year.”
There was the lady who arrived at the shelter when I was on the door with a large backpack and heavily bruised face. She asked me in the meekest voice if I could help her. It turned out that she’d just walked out on her abusive partner and ten miles across London to the shelter. I gave her a cup of tea; Crisis found her a bed for the night.
There were also stories about terrible life choices. Take one twenty-two year-old guest, who played football for a London club’s Under 18s until he broke both his feet in a motorbike accident. For some reason he only told A&E about one of his feet and so he still has a bone sticking out of the other and cannot look at his own foot. He then received an inheritance of £6,000, which he described as if he’d won the lottery. He spent this on forty-eight pairs of trainers (yes, that’s right, forty-eight), watches and jewellery. Then things get even more hazy, but I think he developed a taste for the high life and assaulted someone. He certainly went to prison, where his cellmate pulled out clumps of his hair so that he now doesn’t remove his hood. His girlfriend dumped him before Christmas and he had nowhere to go. There’s no doubt that this chap was a fool, and he’d admit as much. But with his timid voice and shrinking posture he certainly wasn’t your stereotypical convicted criminal.
On the final day, the shelter closes and the grim reality was that everyone got turfed out into the bitterly cold day (albeit with a new sleeping bag donated by Tesco – well done Tesco). The volunteers were apprehensive about this, but the shift leader recounted something a guest once said to him: “This is like a holiday for us. You go to Spain, we come here. We all know it’s going to end, and then we all go back to normal life.” This stoicism was, as it happens, a characteristic of man of the guests. When the aforementioned Romanian lost two of his bags, his reaction was not “that’s 40% of my life possessions gone” but “oh well, less to carry around”.
But the spirit of the shelter was perhaps best captured by a young man in an American Eagle jacket. On leaving, he called the front hall to order and gave a brief speech. He thanked the volunteers “without whom his Christmas couldn’t have happened” and gave us a card he’d bought – generosity on the most limited of means being another characteristic of the guests.
Because I’m not a Very Good Person I don’t think I will do much for Crisis between now and next Christmas, but next time I see a young man in an American Eagle jacket roaming central London I’ll think “lovely guy who has ended up in a terrible situation” rather than “homeless person to avoid”.
If you want to donate to Crisis, then click here.
If you want to volunteer next Christmas but are apprehensive about going yourself, then look out in Q3 for dates on which Oxbow Partners employees will be volunteering. Oxbow Partners gives all employees two days of volunteering leave in its contracts.