Christmas 2019 we had no children at home. A thoroughly empty nest. They were all off doing their own thing and we didn’t have any responsibilities on Christmas day either, so we didn’t have to do the family thing. I’ve always wanted to go and do volunteering for Crisis at Christmas with the homeless. So me and hubby decided that was what we were going to do.
We couldn’t just do Christmas Day though. I think they’re very clever about this, because a lot of people want to go and feel good on Christmas Day volunteering. If you want to participate, you have to sign up for at least two shifts. So we did Christmas Day and the following Sunday, and we went to Westminster College, which becomes the Crisis North London Day Centre for Christmas week. Our shifts were both 3-10pm. So it meant there wouldn’t even be a Christmas tipple for us until very late on Christmas Day!
I cannot recommend Crisis at Christmas more highly. The operation was absolutely incredible and so highly organized. The services on offer for the homeless included, manicure, a hair salon. AA and NA, an advice centre, podiatrist, doctor, Samaritans. Entertainment I saw included a cinema, board games, karaoke, musicians and bingo. There were also so many volunteers, although on the Sunday I heard they’d been down on volunteers later in the week, because I guess people had come for their first shift and then perhaps not turned up for the other ones.
On Christmas Day I ended up doing the washing up in the kitchen and that was industrial scale washing up, believe you me! Massive vats of food the bottoms of which had got a bit burnt with bread sauce or whatever it was. A lot of scrubbing and when we turned up the only sink with hot water was blocked so we had to get an emergency plumber in. It was amazing to me how quickly this volunteer plumber turned up too! It was really hard work but I was so pleased to be doing something. After nearly three hours washing up I did some more cleaning and tidying up.
On Christmas Day I wasn’t front of house at all, so I didn’t get to talk to any of our guests. When we went to our induction meeting, we’d had a full briefing beforehand as to what we were going to be doing and how to behave. We’d been told that a big part of what we were doing was just to interact with the guests, to give them time to talk because usually nobody talks to them and they have no one to talk to. So when Sunday came around, the last day the centre was open, I was determined to be in a position where I could have a bit more guest interaction.
My first job on the Sunday was in the hair salon. We didn’t have very many guests on the Sunday because they’d all had their hair done earlier in the week. Apparently on the 23rd when they first opened, they had over 60 people getting their hair cut! That must’ve been such a busy day. I volunteered for hair washing duty but wasn’t needed. So I sat on reception and welcomed people coming in.
There was one gentleman who looked a bit shy and nervous as he walked in. He said he just wanted a beard trim. He had a hat on when he came in, so I didn’t see his hair, but when he came out, he was a man transformed. He hadn’t just had the beard trimmed. He’d had it taken off. He had a very snappy new haircut too. He just looked so amazingly different. And I said to him, my goodness, you’re looking sharp. And he grinned from ear to ear and then admired his new image in the glass door. We had a little chat and he told me where he came from and where he’d been in his life. He told me the stylist had given him the clippers so he could continue to cut his own hair when he wasn’t near having a free haircut.
So that was an amazing experience. Then when the hair salon closed at five o’clock, my next job was on luggage, looking after the belongings of our guests. People came in during the week and left their luggage safely with the luggage team. We’d give them numbered tickets and log those with the number on their registration wristband. Some people left their entire worldly belongings because everything they had, they had with them all the time.
It was the last day on the Sunday and the last shift was the busiest! It became pretty crazy with everybody picking up their luggage and us working hard to make sure everyone got what was theirs. It was so sad to see these people picking up their belongings and heading out into the cold winter night. Some of them sat on the floor repacking everything before they left.
It really brought home to me how fortunate I am to have a nice warm home to go to. The difference between somebody who has a home and is homeless could just be one really bad bout of ill health or one not too significant bad choice. There is such a fine line between us and them. In fact, we are them, we are the same. We are all human beings.
I really want to do Crisis again. It was such fun as well as being just a really inspiring experience. I got to talk to a number of our guests, many who just wanted someone to listen to them – such a basic thing they never usually get to enjoy. The people running the centre told us that for a couple of months after Christmas, there is a Crisis effect. At the beginning of the year, homeless people on the street register more people taking notice of them than at other times of the year.
That’s what me and hubby have been doing as we’ve gone around since we finished working with Crisis. We’re now acknowledging people on the street, saying hello, wishing them well. We’ve even got them a warm drink if they’d like one. This is a new way of me looking at the world and something I hope to continue.
So try to notice homeless people, if you see them on the street. Maybe even greet them, give them a smile, because generally we don’t look down. We try and avoid seeing the poverty in front of us but it’s there and getting worse. And come and join us at the kitchen sink next Christmas!