Crisis at Christmas

Hundreds of turkey crowns, buckets of cranberry sauce, bacon sarnies, football tournaments, haircuts, eye tests, showers, tellies and a warm, dry bed for a night or two: how the homelessness charity is helping thousands of rough sleepers this festive season.

In a bustling, freezing warehouse in south London, they’re driving home for Christmas.

There are piles and piles of bags and boxes and crates marked women’s thin jackets”, women’s trousers”, men’s shoes”, men’s jumpers”, blankets”, hats & scarves & gloves”, the vast majority of which have been donated by community groups. There are other containers brimming over with toothbrushes, razors, sanitary products, shampoo, goody bags”.

We put out a wish-list of the things we’d like at the beginning of December,” says Anna Bohoslawec as she leads me round the piles of donations. Sometimes they’re really specific asks, and they might not be the loveliest of asks – things like clean, new underwear. Which people might not think to donate; everyone’s thinking big coats.”

As we talk, a clipboard-wielding colleague walks by, inducting a group of 10 volunteers on their first day. They’re teenagers, students, middle-aged, retirees. This is the warehouse for all the non-foods like clothing and toiletries, ready to be distributed to the centres. Now let’s go see the food…” he says, leading them past a marooned forklift, powered down by a flat battery and leaking pump. 

In another, even colder cavernous space, the concrete floors are piled high with kitchen equipment, cleaning products and enough food to feed an army: catering-sized tubs of cranberry sauce, pallets of porridge, pallets of rice, piles of potatoes, sacks of flour, bags of sugar, a gross or so bottles of barbecue sauce and dozens of walk-in freezers full of head-height piles of turkey crowns. 

You know how hard it is defrosting one turkey? Imagine hundreds of them!” says Bohoslawec with a smile. And last year we got double the amount of cheese we asked for, which sounds lovely, but that’s a lot of cheese! But anything we don’t use, we redistribute to food banks.”

Welcome to Crisis at Christmas. Every year the homelessness charity opens a chain of seasonal centres across the country. Mostly hosted in schools and broadly running between 23rd and 30th December, they offer three hot meals daily, a bed for the night and multiple support services. 

They are Santa Claus in hi-vis, bringing seasonal goodwill to those who need it most. And this pop-up warehouse in Bermondsey is the charity’s collection and distribution centre for everything Crisis need to give a little festive something to people who, to all intents and purpose, have nothing.

Everything we do is made fresh,” points out Bohoslawec, who’s Operations Manager for Crisis at Christmas. Like everyone I meet this morning, she’s cheerful, passionate and bristling with get-shit-done, let’s‑make-a-difference energy. So that’s three freshly cooked hot meals a day, and lots of extras. Bacon sarnies are really popular, then there’s teas and coffees. And we just open up the fridges in our centres and let people fill their boots. We don’t care if someone grabs four Lucozades and runs off. That’s absolutely fine.” 

Last Christmas, across 10 London centres, Crisis hosted 3610 guests, a nine per cent increase on 2017. They served 32,000 meals, gave 667 health checks, 327 eye tests, 459 dental check-ups and 390 podiatry sessions. 

Of the two-thirds of guests who filled in a survey, 30 per cent said they were sleeping rough. The average age of guests was 47, half of them were British and 80 per cent were male.

But last December the weather was unseasonably mild, which meant a nonetheless lower than expected uptake of beds. This winter already feels more bitter, and wetter, and grimmer, and not just because of last week’s General Election results. This year the London team are forecasting hosting approximately 1200 guests nightly across their centres. It seems reasonable to assume it’s going to be a very busy Christmas for the indefatigable Crisis staff and the 12,000 volunteers who’ve already signed up to help.

These volunteers will do a minimum of two shifts across a 10-day festive period. But given the centrality of food to Christmas – and to, well, living – volunteers in the catering warehouse are required longer, starting on the 15th December and going through to 7th January. So there’s a big period of volunteering for them.” But people are committed, passionate. Our longest-serving volunteer, this will be his 41st year on the trot.”

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Bohoslawec points out a giant spreadsheet on a wall, and the tea-crates laid out in rows on the floor. Above them, sheets of paper marked with codes for this year’s nine centres across London: SOU (South), CRO (Croydon), ORS (“Outreach, which is in Paddington”), WRS (“Winters, which is in Chalk Farm”), WOM (women’s‑only centre), NLDC (North London Day Centre, near Kings Cross), ELDC (East London Day Centre, in Hackney), WLDC (West London Day Centre, which is bang smack next to Grenfell in Latimer Road”) and GAT, which is Gate, our dependency centre. 

The Gate is where people are referred who have an addiction to alcohol and can’t stop,” she explains. It’s really dangerous to stop drinking, so we don’t want to turn people away. Withdrawal symptoms can lead to death.”

These centres are run from this Bermondsey space, their every logistical need, from walkie-talkies to tin-foil to beans, catered for from this warehouse. In the same way that Amazon do in a very sophisticated way, where they’re picking deliveries to a certain postcode, I’m doing the same per centre. Everything from clinical waste bags to hi-vis jackets to razors and pencils and Post-It Notes.”

The food donations are from producers, suppliers, supermarkets and individuals, their delivery sorted by the indefatigable Crisis Resourcing Teams. The vast majority of what you see, we won’t have paid for – even things like the walkie-talkies. The tea-crates – we’ve get charged a minimum fee, we got a really good deal from those guys.” 

As if on cue, in strides a man wearing a quilted jacket with a Toyota logo. He’s donating another three cars, which are used for ferrying guests and volunteers. Crisis also hire refrigerated vans, Luton vans, seven-and-a-half tonne trucks, and nine-tonners to help us out with the big move for each centre pack – what we need to build each centre is huge.”

All the Crisis at Christmas centres in London are housed in schools. Formerly they used community centres, church halls or sports halls, big spaces in which they would lay out 200 beds. 

But when was the last time you shared a room with somebody who wasn’t our nearest and dearest?” asks Bohoslawec. So we’re trying to reduce that number, so now we use classrooms, so it’s more like 10 or 12. But if someone wants to be alone, we have even smaller areas for them.”

Ian Richards is a Crisis employee with a great job title: Head of Christmas. This is his fifth year in post but he’s been helping out since 1992, when he began volunteering. Crisis at Christmas is a year-round job for Richards and a team of eight. 

The main thing about what we do is centred round the values of the organisation,” he begins. And that’s to give the guests the dignity and respect they deserve. And we do that in bundles. We want to sit down with our guests and make them feel human again.”

Christmas, for obvious reasons, tis the cruellest time. It’s hard because the weather’s bitter, and it’s a time when everyone is celebrating together. There’s actually laughter on the streets. But when you’re sitting in a doorway, freezing, your situation comes home more to you.”

Crisis at Christmas is a way to share the festivities with those stuck outdoors while most of us are happily indoors, cosy, safe, full of cheer, full of Quality Street and booze and the loving warmth of our friends and family. But imagine having none of that. Imagine the loneliness, the isolation, the depression, the feelings of rejection and hunger and hypothermia.

No, we can’t imagine it, can we?

Christmas is such an odd thing,” says Cat Goryn, pointing out the indulgence that characterises most festive experiences. A freelance photographer, she volunteers for Crisis in south London. But if you think about the traditional Christmas story, it was more about giving than that. So I googled a charity to work for, and what Crisis does and the way that they help people take control of their own lives, resonated with me. I really wanted to work for a charity that helps people help themselves.”

No one should be alone at Christmas, right?” observes volunteer Lucie Uwarow, who works in publishing. It’s such a lovely thing to see the friendships starting at the beginning of the week and how people end up exchanging numbers – as much as the guests do that, the volunteers do as well. You see this whole network being created over a week. So it makes me hope that once the centres are closed they still keep in touch and they still get the support through the people they have met during that week.”

The charity’s findings seem to bear out that hope. Each year, the Crisis team conduct debrief guest surveys at the end of their festive mission. One thing always comes out on top. Yes, people love having a shower, playing football, getting a hot meal,” notes Richards. But it’s nearly always about the fact they’ve had a conversation, been treated with respect and been treated like a normal person.”

And they are normal people. Normal people from all over the place, from every corner of the country, from nearly every corner of the world. The refugee crisis? That’s not something that’s only happening in the Mediterranean. That’s happening here, now, today, and tomorrow. 

Bohoslawec shows me the cards carried by she and her colleagues, inviting any homeless people they encounter in the streets to come and stay in a Crisis at Christmas centre. They’re printed in English and the top four languages for rough sleepers in London – Polish, Somali, Lithuanian and Romanian”.

This is a global capital, with global issues of homelessness to match. Say it again: bollocks to Brexit. We can’t shut out the world. We are the world. 

The Face office is located in east London, on the edge of Hackney. Last Christmas Crisis hosted more guests from this borough than any other in the capital. As it happens our place of work is near Crisis’s HQ, so we see lots of homeless people. But that’s no fluke and, brutally, not unusual. Everyone in London sees lots of homeless people, in doorways, in alleyways, on the Overground, on the Underground, on the ground full-stop. 

It’s the same all over Britain. Homelessness is a national scourge, and a national shame. No one should be homeless. No one should have to spend their days sitting outside Tesco’s on a ragged bit of cardboard in a sodden, ratty blanket. No one. Ever. Anecdotally we can all see that homelessness is worse now. 

Statistically, we’re all correct. The Homelessness Monitor 2019, a Crisis-commissioned report on the situation across England, found that 71 per cent of participating local authorities observed that homelessness had been recently increasing – to a significant” extent in a quarter of the cases.

Oh, without a shadow of a doubt it’s worse,” agrees Richards. The numbers are going up; you can see it visibly on the streets. And in two other places I go to a lot, Manchester and Brighton, it’s bad there as well. So it is across the country. But London’s bad. The social system doesn’t help. What’s particularly worrying to me is the number of younger kids, particularly women, coming on to the streets. I’d have thought that’s to do with the credit system, family breakdowns and people’s individuality. 

Their families might not be too keen on the direction they’ve taken in life, whatever that may be. A lot of LGBTQ people are being marginalised and being given a hard time. 

But certainly renting in London is just comical. How a youngster can start here, God alone knows.”

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Of course, to borrow a phrase, a bed should be for life, not just for Christmas. That’s why it’s important that we all support the homeless, and charities like Crisis, the whole year round. Don’t ignore the problem. Don’t step over the problem” on the pavement. Donate, engage, volunteer. 

Brilliantly, broadly, Crisis have enough volunteers for this Christmas. But they are looking for more Night Owls, people who can help with the night shift in their centres. And for sure, they’re always looking for donations – £28.87 reserves someone a place at a centre. Let’s do that now.

In the Bermondsey warehouse earlier this week, the hard, humbling eve-of-Crisis at Christmas graft was going like the clappers. 

The food team amongst these humanitarian heroes were busy apportioning £750,000-worth of resources, donated by all those companies and all those individuals. There’s £236,000 worth of IT support, too, from the Aimar Foundation, to be used by staff and guests in the free-to-use internet cafes in each centre. Don’t be fooled – or even dissuaded – by what happened in the General Election. We are generous and we’re not isolationist and we do care. Let’s just hope that buoyant, bouncing BoJo uses his mandate for change for inclusive change.

Anna Bohoslawec explained to me the full range of the Crisis at Christmas services. They get in hairdressers, podiatrists, opticians, professional footballers, The Samaritans. They offer hot running water and clean towels. All these things where we just try and treat people a bit more humanely. It’s all about pampering.” 

Entertainment, too: lots of tellies, arts and crafts people, musicians (last year Stormzy turned up at his local centre), a one-man band, one or two drag queens, a woman who makes balloon shapes you could never imagine”, and doughty, superstar sewing teams – people might have favourite items, and we can repair that for them.” 

There’s even an inter-centre football tournament, supported by most London clubs and hosted by Arsenal at the Emirates. Play together, come together, celebrate together.

But advice is probably the most important thing we offer at the centres,” she says of various free services including information on claiming benefits, reapplying for passports, scanning important documents safely because holding on to them is a flipping nightmare if you’re sleeping on the streets. So we scan and store them in the Cloud for our guests. Also, advising them on their rights – people really can access GP services without having an address and shouldn’t be turned away.

And if they’re rough sleeping we can refer them to some better services. Because the aim of the game here is to end homelessness. Crisis at Christmas gives people a great week off. But our real aim is to get them out of this situation. It’s kind of tragic if you see someone returning year on year. You’re like: Dammit, I know you – in the nicest possible way, as lovely as you are, I don’t want to see you again.’”

Before I leave I talk to Richard, who’s Project Coordinator/​Warehouse. He’s formerly homeless, and doesn’t want his second name used. A father from the Midlands, he ended up on the streets in his early thirties after leaving the Army and the breakdown of his relationship. He gave his partner everything, including the kids, couldn’t find a job, moved to London and was diagnosed with depression. 

Things just went south, really. I’d been in the Army since school, so I didn’t really have any coping mechanisms once I was out of it. So I ended up on the streets.”

His worst moment? I was so isolated. Just being alone was really difficult. And you always felt that people were judging. I didn’t beg or anything, but I just always felt people were looking at me with perceived prejudice. I felt so much disdain for myself, I assumed everyone else felt that way towards me, too. So it was hard to even get in conversations. My sense of self-worth went through the floor.”

Richard managed to turn it round by rebooting his own self-confidence. 

And Crisis helped – their Skylight [skills and counselling] centre gave me the space to do simple things like filling in council forms, which gave me a fixed address, which is a massive thing on government forms.”

Richard ended up managing a pub in Camden, then volunteering for Crisis. I wanted to give something back.” Now he does six-month contracts, setting up, managing and closing down the warehouse.

The staff at Crisis all have one belief, and all campaign for what we believe in: that we can end homelessness.”

We can, and we should, and we will. But right here, right now, let’s support Crisis at Christmas, and let’s support their homeless guests. Because, apart from four walls and a roof, they’re the same as us. 

Freelance photographer Imogen Forte is donating her fee for this feature to Crisis. The Face has paid for places for 12 guests at a Crisis at Christmas centre 


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