Crisis at Christmas: what it was like for guests and volunteers in the festive shelters

“The hardest conversation was with a father who had accepted his son being an addict on the streets. He was volunteering in the hope of seeing his son in the centre. He did see him, they shared a meal together and spent some time talking.”

Last month we ran a preview of the homelessness charity’s brilliant Christmas centres. Here, four volunteers – and Crisis’s Head of Christmas – describe what it was like to bring a little festive cheer to people who need it most.

Cat Goryn, Key Volunteer, South London Centre

In December, for my eighth year in a row, I began to get ready for Christmas. My role for the last five years has been Key Volunteer, which means I look after a section of the school we have taken over. These years have changed my life.

I have met all kinds of people, and begun to build real friendships. The thing is, just like anyone’s Christmas, I see these people once a year, we catch up, exchange a few stories about how the last 365 days have been. Then the difference is, in the nicest way, I hope I never see them again. Because if I do it means they are probably still in the same position they have been previously: sleeping rough on the streets.

This year, however, was a little different, as my centre also served as a Day Centre. It was the first time I had conversations within Crisis with those experiencing hidden homelessness. [From Crisis HQ: many people who become homeless do not show up in official statistics, either because they are turned away for help or are not in contact with services. This is known as hidden homelessness” and includes people living in squats, sofa-surfing or sleeping rough in concealed places.]

On my first day I sit down quite late into the evening to eat and start chatting to a young lad. He is incredibly creative, a part-time job and a small, temporary place to live. He reminds me of my little brother. He has dreams, and is full of life. Christmas Day makes him anxious and I’m grateful for the other volunteers around to be able to check in with him. We saw each other each day and I am so grateful I met him.

Halfway through the week, as I am walking between buildings, an arm appears around my shoulder and a cheeky grin comes into view. I know this guest. He looks healthier than he did last year, but hasn’t played as much football. He asks me how my art stuff is going, and if I am still a little bit Polish, and if I can speak a word of it yet. We hug, and share a couple of other conversations throughout the week. This is the first year he hasn’t told me he will be back as a volunteer, and it saddens me.

On the last day I am outside and meet someone who had been injured in the line of duty. He was medically discharged from the military after serving six years. Unable to work following the injury, unemployment led to being unable to maintain a home. And that led to a mix of hostel and street sleeping.

I have a lot of friends who are part of the military family, some who have been injured, and it is only a sliding-doors moment that took them in one direction instead of the other. This conversation will stay in my heart. He has been content with his week. He says he couldn’t ask for more.

I think about those that I met, whether they have made it to appointments set up for Crisis Skylight (an all-year-round service), if the hostel place has worked out, whether the apprenticeship has come through, whether someone made it out of hospital OK. And for those that are rough sleeping I keep my fingers crossed that the rain and snow holds off through the night.

Right now all I can do is hope that the little bit of love, some good food and rest that we offered over Christmas will help them feel a bit more human and positive for their futures. 

Hong, Assistant Shift Leader, East London Centre

They say your body language can give it all away. I find the eyes especially can tell you a lot. We use it to look out for guests who seem too scared to ask for anything or volunteers who need help in a certain situation.

One of my evenings was spent with a female guest who had been flagged by the volunteers at the front gate as someone who might need some extra care. She had been working things out with her family, but she had made mistakes; made decisions she could not explain. 

With bridges burnt she had no place to stay, but she thought I had better things to do than looking after her. She didn’t think she deserved it, the attention, the time or an opportunity for a safe place to stay. It took several hours of the whole team working together, but we finally managed to bus her over to our women’s centre later in the evening.

The hardest conversation was with a father who had accepted his son being an addict on the streets. He was volunteering in the hope of seeing his son in the centre. He did see him, they shared a meal together and spent some time talking. I was introduced to the son, to see whether we could offer him anything. 

The father wasn’t even sure he would want anything from us. He actually didn’t take much from me, but he agreed to a bed in our dependents’ centre. I stayed with the son and his father and, while we waited for his transport, offered him the cigarettes that I only carry during Crisis week.

Compassion even expands to beyond our doors. A passer-by had fallen over near our centre as we were closing. We brought him in, warmed him up and assisted him getting to A&E, which would have been a lot more straightforward if he hadn’t already been on crutches. 

It takes the whole team working together to get the best outcome for the guests. If nothing else, we offer a small respite from their current situation. It is made possible because of everyone there, from the ones volunteering in the centre to the people in operations centre. They say not all superheroes wear capes. Well, for Crisis at Christmas week, I think they all wear badges.

Keith Jarvis, Therapist Volunteer, West London Centre

I am a craniosacral therapist. At its most basic, CST is a non-invasive, gentle, complementary therapy which aims to help people suffering from pain, anxiety, stress and disease in whatever way it manifests, in the person seeking help. To assist their metabolism to heal itself – or, at least, find some relief.

I volunteered to offer this service to Crisis for two days of the Christmas period. This turned out to be both a more demanding and humbling experience than expected! 

The response of the visitors who came for treatment was gratifying and reinforced my belief that such complementary treatments such as CST should be more readily available to all such people in need. Certainly the whole atmosphere at the Crisis centre was conducive to offering this treatment – genuine compassion is available in bucketloads.

The most satisfying treatment concerned a deaf visitor who was clearly in great pain and could only communicate through signing.

The gentle treatment went well and lasted nearly an hour. The look of gratitude from the lady when she left was a privilege to receive.

Giving these treatments at Crisis to people who would not normally seek out such an experience was an education for me. It’s a shame they are not more widely embraced by mainstream health care. It has a lot to learn from an organisation like Crisis and the work that they do.

Ian Richards, Head of Christmas across all Crisis’s London centres

The 48th London Crisis @ Christmas has passed us by and we are now busy closing down the project. 

This was our busiest year so far. We were at full capacity in all of our residential centres by late Christmas Day and implementing overspill bed spaces in three of our centres by Boxing Day. We were packed with guests coming in from the cold and spending safe nights with us. 

From the 23rd to 28th December guests had access to doctors, nurses and pharmacists via the Healthcare clinics, and to an eye-care team.

One donor that has been with us for over 10 years now are Aimar. They design, engineer, implement and operate our IT provision. As well as installing and decommissioning the equipment, they offer operational support during the event. Without them we would not be able to offer or run what we do. 

The activities in all our centres offered the guests the chance to have fun, learn a new skill and boost confidence and self-esteem. We were blown away by the quality of arts and crafts this year including bracelets, t‑shirt painting, clay sculptures, wire models, knitted hats and self-portraits. For this reason, we would like to put on an exhibition of our guests’ work sometime/​somewhere in the new year and invite, guests, volunteers, donors and influencers. This will take some organising but I think it would be of benefit in many ways. Watch this space.

Volunteers also offered IT tutorials, CV-writing workshops, sports training and poetry workshops. Guests in West London Day Centre were taught drama by Cathy Shipton aka Duffy from Casualty.

Ian Richards

Football enthusiasts were once again being treated by our London clubs (Arsenal, Millwall, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers) who coached our guests. Arsenal again hosted this year’s football tournament at their wonderful indoor facility at the Emirates stadium. They even threw in a free stadium tour for 100 guests and volunteers between group stages. Congratulations to the Croydon Centre, who won the cup and overall tournament, with Outreach taking second place (Winters won the Plate with NLDC coming second). All teams were treated to a hero’s welcome on return to their centres and the exceptional behaviour of our guests and brilliant volunteers accompanying them deserves recognition.

We continued to offer guests the opportunity to go on a range of interesting trips: 40 tickets plus lunch at QPR’s home game on the 29th January; 40 tickets to Millwall’s home game on the 29th January; 11 tickets plus pitch-side appearance to West Ham’s home game on the 28th January; 16 people bowling at Rowans; 20 tickets to the Bond exhibition at the London Film Museum; 16 tickets to the Space VR experience at the Science Museum; 15 tickets and refreshments for the Rembrandt exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery; 15 tickets to the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at Tate Modern; 12 tickets to The Moon exhibition and a private tour of the National Maritime Museum; 12 tickets to the Troy exhibition at the British Museum; 12 tickets to the Cutty Sark.

There was a huge range of entertainments in our centres, from Christmas choirs to samba drummers, brass bands and steel pans, Irish bands, bluegrass and jazz, magicians, hula hoopers and a drag queen. Centres were brought alive with dance competitions, a fashion show, quizzes, table tennis tournaments, open-mic sessions and piano singalongs – and karaoke and bingo continued to be essential daily activities!

Many people were directed to our year-round services so that they can continue to benefit. Our centres are open across the country, providing a full package of support including housing and employment advice, education and training.

Thanks to all our supporters, we can continue to give hope to people who are homeless – and offer a route out of homelessness, for good. We all need the same basic things: shelter, food and to be treated with dignity. We can all be part of the change to make sure that one day every one of us has the stability of a safe home.

Hope starts with all of us, and together we will end homelessness.

Annie Cleghorn, General Volunteer, Croydon Centre

This was the fifth year that I have volunteered at Crisis and my second in Croydon, at a centre in a school that people can access during the day or overnight as well.

My days at the centre were busy. As a General Volunteer we were stationed in pairs around the building. We started by wearing a cardboard box advertising the various services and activities available each day: hairdressing, massage, reflexology, podiatry, football training, a visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery, a visit to the cinema. 

One of our Polish guests had been in tears earlier – he missed his family and festive celebrations at home. But he said he was really looking forward to the karaoke, the music and the good food. 

Another guest was beaming as he had been completely transformed by a haircut and sparkly new varnished nails; he was thrilled by all the positive comments. It was good, too, to see one young man, who had been overwhelmed by circumstances in a bad way when he arrived, noticeably changing as the week went on: looking more hopeful and less frightened and choosing a new wardrobe for himself. 

Then there was the young, very pregnant woman we looked after. as She had not been able to find anywhere else to go so she was given a classroom/​bedroom to herself and a proper bed. 

The annual five-a-side football tournament between all the Crisis at Christmas Centres is very popular. It was held at the Arsenal Community Hub and our Croydon team won the cup. It was a brilliant occasion, and there were cheers and smiles all round when they returned to the centre.

We worked on impossible jigsaws during Gap Duty – controlling access to restricted parts of the centre, which is key to keeping guests and volunteers safe. And, yes, I did help with the occasional toilet duty, just ensuring that the loos were clean and tidy. I also helped outside the Advice Area, in the Clothes Area, meeting and greeting guests as they came in and out of the building and encouraging them to come to meals, get a drink, play a game or chill. All the while, ambassadors from Crisis’s Skylight centre were noticeably busy mingling with the guests, ensuring that they knew that help and advice is available all year round. 

I worked three days at Croydon and enjoyed every minute. It is hard work, emotionally, but really worthwhile. I’m already looking forward to next year. 

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