As Christmas approaches us this year, I look forward to attending Crisis Over Christmas – an opportunity to serve London’s homeless this festive period. Here is an account written at the tail end of 2003 of my first and only experience of serving at a Crisis homeless shelter on 26th December 2003, alongside the Young Jains team…
Wide-awake at 3am, I knew it was to be a deeply heart-warming day. One thing I can say about a morning shift with a 7:45am start on Boxing Day is that it’s an easy drive down the A5 – never seen Edgware Road so traffic-free!
On arrival at the warehouse in South East London, we headed to the registration desk, were given our name badges and directed over to the volunteers’ area. An entertaining briefing session was concluded with the volunteers dispersing into groups. A shout for 8 people to help out in the kitchen led me to my calling for the morning.
What did kitchen duty consist of for me? Topping, tailing and shredding parsnips for soup, peeling and chopping onions, washing and shredding lettuce, and waste disposal. If you’re reading this and you know my mum, don’t blab it – you KNOW I’ll be expected to do more in the kitchen at home. What was great about kitchen duty for me? We got trained by an ex-professional chef, were offered hot or cold drinks throughout, and had awesome conversations with some students, a physiotherapist from Edinburgh, and a London based paediatrician. As for chopping onions, it must be the first time I’ve cried so much in years – and about time too!
Around midday, I decided to explore other areas of the shelter. As I talked with several of the guests, I found that many of them really did want someone to share their thoughts with. There’s this one guy, we’ll call him Mr L, 6’6″, waiting for his turn in the clothes ticket queue, who had trouble finding shoes that would fit him. Empathising is when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and I knew right then how he must have been feeling. I myself have size 15 feet! In the few days that Mr L was at the shelter, he told me he’d transformed his appearance, and donned a groovy haircut. Crisis goes well beyond a simple meal – guests get advice, haircuts, spiritual healing, computer skills, art skills, an abundance of cakes, and much more.
Back in the volunteers’ area, a call came out for outdoor duty. At the front gate, my role was to filter through anyone who arrived. Guests line up to get searched for illegal possessions and guest transport vehicles drop off guests just outside the gate. Certain individuals are banned from Crisis for reasons of bad behaviour or drug dealing, and must not be allowed in. Some of the guests that filter through have an amazingly polite attitude about them, and you know their hearts are being touched when they receive food, shelter and love, without necessarily having to reciprocate.
Whilst on Front Gate Duty, a gentleman who we’ll name Mr G approached me. He’s a Big Issue vendor and was volunteering at Crisis. Mr G greeted me with such warmth, and was surprised to see a young Asian working with the homeless. In his years of selling Big Issue on the streets of London, not a single Asian person had bought a copy from him. When talking with others about this, I found that a common perception is that Asians are tight-fisted – plain and simple. To find out more about Big Issue, I checked out www.bigissue.com and learned that the Big Issue, a news and current affairs magazine, provides opportunities for people facing homelessness to help themselves. Some members of the public choose not to buy this magazine from vendors such as Mr G because they are concerned about how vendors spend their money. The Big Issue believes that all people must take responsibility for themselves, and homeless people have as much right to spend their earnings as they wish as anyone else.
As I was warming up with a hot coffee, a call was made for an internal job of sorting jackets. As we were placing the jackets into the various boxes, we realised just how quickly these jackets will disappear. Much of the clothing was of high quality, and gratefully received by the guests.
In between tasks, the idea was to head into the volunteers’ area, where there were opportunities to mingle with other volunteers, have some food and hot drinks, and wait for a request for the massive variety of jobs that were available to take on such as refereeing a football match. A request came for cigarette rollers – experienced or ready to learn. I was in the latter category and my first ever rolling attempt was impressive, if I may say so myself. The rolling team was challenged to fill up 4 cups worth of rolled cigarettes so that a large number of cigarettes could be distributed out to the guests in each of the 4 main zones. Although I had started rolling quite well, the quality of my cigarettes appeared to decrease fast. Others on the Young Jains team who had never done it before seemed to be naturals!
In the final hour of the shift, some volunteers were needed to clean the guest areas, including sweeping the carpeted floors. Guests sleep on the bare floor with just a blanket covering them, and it’s essential the floors are kept clean. It’s also nice to leave the areas in a better state than they were found for the next shift to take it to a greater level.
Wrapping up now… Following the Young Jains team photo shoot, a Crisis green badge (one of the volunteers who ran the shelter) thanked all “The Jains” for supporting Crisis this year and every year. Those who had no other commitments for the evening then made their way over to Yogi Jis for the traditional YJ post-event social.
Crisis is a national charity that fights homelessness and empowers people to fulfil their potential and transform their lives.
During Christmas, Crisis provides Centres across London for homeless people, offering hot meals and a wide range of essential services.
Dates: 23rd – 30th December 2007
Times: daytime slot, evening slot, night slot
Location: London – specific location will be disclosed by Crisis nearer the time
Group on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=5468753268
Event details from the Crisis website…
If you are homeless or living in hostel accommodation, Christmas can be a lonely and depressing time. For the past 35 years, Crisis Open Christmas has helped to alleviate that loneliness, providing Christmas Centres across London from 23 – 30 December that not only offer vital companionship, hot meals and warmth, but a wide range of essential services that homeless people do not normally have access to.
In 2006 over 6500 volunteers gave up their time over the Christmas week to support our work. If you are interested in volunteering at the next COC you can do so in five ways.
General volunteer: This role gives you an opportunity to take part in a variety of tasks which ensure the safe and effective running of the Centre. Tasks such as welcoming guests and serving food, to washing hair and sorting bedding. We need about 85 per cent of volunteers to carry out this role.
Support volunteer: Join the team that makes the COC happen! From logistics and operational roles to driving vehicles, coordinating food deliveries to being a translator, we need key people to help deliver the event.
Services volunteer: Use your specialist skills to help deliver the variety of services we provide our guests – medical professionals, advice practitioners, hairdressers, massage therapists, chefs and many more
Learning & Skills: Help us inspire and entertain our guests. Learning and skills volunteers have a unique opportunity to engage with our guests on a very personal level. Learning and skills covers a wide range of activities.
Set up volunteers: Help get the Centres ready for our guests before the 23 Dec, and put them back to normal after the 30 Dec.