Perhaps for the very first time, this Christmas I finally discovered what it’s all about. They say that ‘giving’ is the best gift of all… and I’ve always enjoyed that, but this year was something truly special. Don’t start choking on my cheesy words yet, because I really mean it. I wanted to do something in London to get ‘in’ to the city more like I had in other places—I wanted to work somehow and meet the real people of the city. And I did just that–I met the city’s true residents—the homeless.
During all of Christmas week I volunteered for something called Crisis Open Christmas. Crisis is a national charity that focuses on the ‘hidden’ homeless people who may be living in hostels, cheap hotels, or sleeping on friend’s and family’s floors. The Crisis vision is that all homeless people, or those in danger of becoming homeless, should be able to easily access individual help and support to help them to rebuild their lives and prevent them from remaining trapped in the cycle of homelessness.
Homelessness has changed over the last 35 years but it is far from being solved. Today, the majority have some form of accommodation, but still need companionship and warmth at Christmas. During the Crisis Open Christmas more than 1,500 guests were welcomed at eight different centers spread around London in empty office buildings from the 23rd to the 30th of December 2007. The guests were not only provided with warmth, companionship, food, and a safe place to sleep, but also amazing services such as checkups from on-site doctor and dentist, professional advice on housing, and other treats like an arts and crafts center, a computer lab, a movie area, karaoke, live musical entertainment, and even a mini beauty saloon for some pampering of massages and hair treatments. Of course there were also showers and plenty of cots to sleep on.
I was just one of 7,000 volunteers who gave up their time during the holidays and many of whom return again and again every year to ensure that homeless people are not left out in the cold and are given the chance to move up in their lives. Without any family here, for me it just felt like the right thing to do.
I worked the afternoon shift (3-11p) for five days. Every day we started with a volunteer meeting at which different jobs were divvied up. I was not only impressed with the whole operation, but with the efficient organization of so many volunteers. The volunteers in charge had been doing this for years and had perfected the way to run such a program. Every hour or so we were relieved and rotated into a new job so we were able to try many different things and meet as many different guests as possible. The bottom line to everything was interaction with the guests—something many of them unfortunately don’t get much of all year long. Smiles, conversations, laughter and constant warmth painted the overall scene everywhere you looked.
One of my favorite jobs was working at the ever-busy coffee and tea bar. It kept me busy making drinks and there was no better place to get to talk to guests and get to know them. In just a day or two I was calling people by name and of course, they knew me as the girl from Chicago with the funny American accent. Another great ‘post’ was at the front gate where guests entered and exited. Since we were an alcohol and drug-free center, guests did have to be patted down. This job was given only to women as we were seen as less threatening. Of course it was a nice and funny treat for the many male guests and they joked with us and seemed to be exiting and reentering more than necessary just to get ‘felt up’ by a lovely lady.
Other ‘jobs’ I did: dinner service, food clean-up, ‘gap’ duty (basically making sure guests didn’t go where they weren’t supposed to), and overall mingling. Luckily I never got assigned to toilet duty, but I have to say every volunteer seemed happy to be there and it was an amazingly positive environment.
One of the preconceived notions I and others have… and the most common question I was asked: “weren’t they dirty and smelly?” I think we are so used to seeing (or smelling) the inebriated bum on the corner that perhaps we assume that is what they are all like. But after one day there, I was honestly forgetting that these were homeless people and was even confusing some volunteers for guests. They were all different kinds and from all walks of life–artists, writers, philosophers, musicians, immigrants, mothers, husbands, sons, etc. Yes, there were some drunks, but the majority were rather friendly, intelligent, and openly thankful for Crisis.
I did have a few ‘experiences’ because of the fact that I am very friendly and smiley and sometimes this can be misconstrued as ‘more’ especially when you are dealing with folks that perhaps never get any attention at all. I not only had a few new ‘boyfriends’ trying to woo me, I got my first marriage proposal. Not exactly the way I’d imagined it, but still flattering.
One guest, I’ll call him Michael, started to fancy me. He was also a bit of a hot head and involved in a few fights between a group of Polish people and a group of Black people. Knowing he was taking a liking to me, the head volunteers actually used me to calm him down. I would hang out and talk to him, go out and smoke with him (without actually smoking) and in a way it felt a bit manipulative as I thought they were using me to sort of play on his emotions a bit, but if it prevented violence then I guess it was okay. Michael ended up giving me a hand written note on the last night thanking me for ‘looking out for’ him saying he really liked me and ‘thought we could be more than friends.’ It reminded me of notes I’d gotten in grade school. I let him down gently and he took it like a man.
Another guy, I’ll call him Johnny, started out as a super sweet guy always coming to talk to me. But after five days, a declaration of love and a marriage proposal, he became a bit of a stalker who kept giving me his phone number and asking for my info. This was a big ‘no-no’ of course.
Sadly, though, it was kind of like a ‘bubble’ in our center, a kind of safe place where you could talk to strangers, and laugh with drug addicts and convicts and not even think twice about it. Even walking back to the tube after my shift I would see some new friends and say ‘hello.’ This was very different from real life where we all too often divert our eyes from the sadness we pass on the sidewalks of our own cities. It has definitely made me change this thinking. But, nevertheless, it will always be the same on the outside where you don’t have the safety net of Crisis behind you and really just never know what might happen.
Just think about a life where perhaps you are almost always alone. And then here at Crisis you are surrounded by warm people who talk to you and smile with you all week. I can’t imagine what this must feel like, but many guests continuously thanked us all week for our time telling us how much it meant to them.
This was the best part for me… to just make someone feel good and not alone. The hardest part was on the 30th the doors were closed… and the intensity of the week came to an abrupt end. What happens to these people now? Hopefully, with the help of Crisis, they will be on their way to a better life. But I do think the reality is, for better or worse, the majority will be back again next year. If this could only be the ‘true meaning’ of life all year round and not just at Christmas, we’d really be onto something.