The Big Society: My Christmas As A Crisis Worker

Crisis, the charity for single homeless and vulnerably-housed people, are now seeking 8,000 volunteers to help out at their 2012 'Crisis at Christmas' temporary centres. Last Christmas, a Sabotage Times writer found out why it's worthwhile signing up…
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Crisis, the charity for single homeless and vulnerably-housed people, are now seeking 8,000 volunteers to help out at their 2012 'Crisis at Christmas' temporary centres. Last Christmas, a Sabotage Times writer found out why it's worthwhile signing up…

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Ostensibly, it’s a daft concept: recruit volunteers, the vast majority of whom have no specific training, to take care of some of the most vulnerably housed people in London at one of the most stressful times of the year. What could possibly go wrong?

Yet for 40 years this is how Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, has offered shelter and support to the capital’s dispossessed during the Christmas period. ‘Crisis at Christmas’ is the largest volunteer-led project in the UK, and this year I signed up as one of the 8,000 people to assist at one of nine temporary Christmas centres scattered across London. Housed in schools, colleges and offices, with most of the setup work, equipment, food and clothing donated by companies and individuals, the centres were expected to welcome around 3,000 guests between 23rd and 30th December. The residential centres provide accommodation for rough sleepers and people with specific needs, such as women at risk and those with dependency issues. Meanwhile, the specialist day centres, open from 9am till 9.30pm, offer three square meals and an ‘inspirational environment’ for the vulnerably housed.

After an induction meeting at in early December where veteran volunteers advised on what to expect, I roll up at quarter to three on Boxing Day afternoon for my first shift at the North London Day Centre. Crisis have taken over the first two floors of Westminster Kingsway College, a bright, airy building on Grays Inn Road, and the place is abuzz with activity. I’m given a name badge and carve my way through the throng to the Volunteers’ Room on the first floor. There I join the 100-odd other people working today’s 3-10pm shift for a pep talk by the Centre’s impressively calm leader, Ade, and his sidekick Demola, a relentlessly cheerful man with a high propensity for hugging anyone who stands in his way. Like us, both are unpaid volunteers, not Crisis employees.

They remind us of the key prohibitions (no alcohol, no drugs, no violence etc) and who to turn to if we ever have problems — i.e. the ‘Key-Vos’, key volunteers, one of whom will always be within easy reach. The importance of not making promises to guests is emphasised, whether it’s about getting them clothing from the limited stock available or an appointment with the doctors who are on site at various times through the week. Our guests are routinely the victims of broken promises in their daily life, so it always crucial to check first.

The accent is on the positive, however; on ensuring that all the guests are made to feel welcome and respected, taking the time to talk, referring them to the activities and services which may interest them and, most important, having fun. And with that, amid whoops of encouragement from Demola, we are dispatched in pairs to our posts to relieve the morning shifters.

The accent is on ensuring that all the guests are made to feel welcome and respected, taking the time to talk, and, most important, having fun.

My first job is manning the store room. My assigned partner, a young lad who’s just come back from coaching football (or soccer) in the USA, and I spend an undemanding hour or so doling out snacks for the café, where biscuits are being devoured at an alarming rate, and sourcing clean, suitable clothes for guests who need them.

Next up, I share a desk outside the medical rooms with a fashion assistant on an über-trendy magazine. She tells me her boss is an identikit of Meryl Streep’s heinous character in The Devil Wears Prada, and she’s here to remind herself of real life rather than one where bringing the wrong kind of coffee can trigger a hissy fit.

We are soon joined by a transgender wheelchair user with a couple bags of belongings on her lap and just a few more teeth in her mouth. We get talking while she waits. She tells us that she has officially become a woman, but the physical transformation will be completed in February. Then, unprompted she volunteers the reason she needs to see the doctor. “I had some bleeding from the anus and the labia last night,” she says with the matter-of-fact air of someone describing the weather. No holding back there, then.

Soon a doctor is free to see our guest who wheels into the consulting room. A few minutes later, we are slightly taken aback to see her walk out the door again and past us to the nearby toilet. Amazing what these doctors can do…

Meanwhile, a bit of a ruction is brewing in the medical room next door. A fairly drunk man with a nasty arm injury is is waiting impatiently for an ambulance which was called half an hour ago but still hasn’t arrived. Despite the efforts of the doctors and nurses to calm him down, he eventually storms out of the room and past us saying “Don’t fucking touch me.” Happily, one of the Key-Vos manages to calm him down at the front entrance and the ambulance belatedly arrives to take him to hospital.

(Note: While drinking alcohol is not permitted inside the centre, there is nothing to stop people drinking before they arrive. And, in keeping with Crisis’s all-inclusive policy, levels of drunkenness are judged on a case-by-case basis, hence the odd happy drunk among the guests, and more rarely, a man behaving aggressively like this. Serious cases can of course be referred to the Dependency centre.)

Soon a doctor is free to see our guest who wheels into the consulting room. A few minutes later, we are slightly taken aback to see her walk out the door again and past us to the nearby toilet. Amazing what these doctors can do…

For my final task of the day, I’m pleased to be on the team serving dinner, which gives me more chance to interact more with the guests. What is immediately apparent is the fact that 90 per cent of the diners are male — unsurprisingly, given that single males are the lowest of the low priority for receiving council housing. Dinner is running about an hour-and-a-half late, but we try to keep calm and carry on as previously advised by Demola earlier  (“It’s Crisis — the clue’s in the name!”), serving coffees and soft drinks in the meantime.

When the food is ready, there one of two rude buggers who loudly demand their meal first, ignoring everyone else we have to serve, but generally the people are lovely and grateful for our efforts. It’s gammon or a vegetable bake tonight followed by apple pie and crumble, and the food seems to be go down well with many guests asking for seconds.

When, and only when, the guests have been eaten everything they want, volunteers are allowed to grab a bite to eat and have a chat with remaining guests in the dining area. I sit down next to a slightly-built, bearded man who is sitting alone at a table finishing off his crumble. He tells me he has been sleeping rough in Brighton and has just come up to London. It turns out he’s my age. He’s an articulate and friendly sort, but beaten down by life and lacking in confidence. He talks about moving on to Birmingham in the new year, but has no relatives or friends there and it admits it’s a hazy plan. He says he’s worked as a kitchen porter but would like to go to college and study philosophy. I ask him if he’s spoken to the advisors here.

“I’ve got an appointment tomorrow at 11.30. But I’m scared about going and them telling me they can’t do anything. I’ve heard that so many times before and I can’t face it.”

Bearing in mind the ‘No Promises’ rule, I tell him that while it is possible they won’t be able to do anything for him, the likelihood is that they will be able to make useful suggestions. I mention the expanding network of Crisis Skylight centres which operate all year round in various British cities, supporting people in their search for secure accomodation, training and jobs. Perhaps the Crisis advisors could refer him to the recently opened Birmingham branch? He’s never heard of Crisis’s Skylight services before and brightens noticeably at the revelation. I hope that he keeps that appointment.

By 9.30, most of the guests have departed, many taking advantage of transport laid on to hostels and drop-off points around north London. After pitching in with brushing and mopping up, it’s time for an end-of-shift debrief by Damola, who by now is wearing spring-loaded Santa hat bearing the legend ‘Kiss Me’. With over 130 guests served and entertained, he declares the day a great success and there’s a round of applause for those volunteers doing their last shift (most people, like me, sign up for two shifts during the week).

We are treated a mindblowing karaoke version of 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ in Czech by a guest who goes by the MC name of “Dr Angell”. In return, I offer my take on Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind’ to the dispossessed of North London (as if they haven’t suffered enough).

The following afternoon, I’m back and this time I’m lucky enough to be chosen to work throughout my shift in a team of five on the information desk, the fulcrum of the centre. Our responsibilities are to deal with any requests from guests, direct them to the various facilities and activities, and generally to smile and be helpful. Furthermore, we have the not insignificant duty of overseeing JC’s mega-sized birthday card and donations box.

JC is a regular guest at the centre, and his efforts to raise funds for Crisis himself have become an annual tradition. Previous ventures include offering hugs for donations, but this year with him turning 50 on Christmas Day (I am assuming the initials don’t stand for Jesus Christ… ), people are invited to donate cash in return for the privilege of signing his ever-expanding birthday card (12 pages and counting). JC plays an active role, charmingly haranguing passing volunteers to contribute to the cause. By the end of the day, the running total for the week is topping £840, and his target of £1,000 is in sight.

There are loads of services and activities for the guests to enjoy. They can get a shower, have their clothes repaired by the sewing team and get fresh, clean clothes to change into if required. They can book in for podiatry, massage, reiki and reflexology sessions or they can indulge their artistic side in the arts and crafts room. For the sporting types, each morning, community coaches from Arsenal FC have been down to train the footballers (guests can sign up for a free tour of the Emirates Stadium too) and a daily table tennis tournament draws plenty of entrants.

Then there’s entertainment throughout the day, including films in the university’s cinema (this afternoon, a quirky double bill of Atonement and Superbad), bingo, and live music on a stage near to our information desk. A performance by an opera singer on Christmas Day is still the talk of the centre (“Better voice than Katherine Jenkins,” one guest tells me), and this afternoon’s schedule includes a brass band and, before dinner, the daily karaoke session in which both volunteers and guests are encouraged to get involved. We are treated to a beautiful, heartfelt rendition of ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ by a female guest and a mindblowing version of 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ in Czech by a young rapper from Prague going by the MC name of ‘Dr Angell’. In return, with backing vocals provided by two of the information desk ladies, I offer my take on Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind’ to the dispossessed of North London (as if they haven’t suffered enough).

Of course, while the emphasis is on having fun and taking our guests minds off their problems for a while, many are suffering. Last Christmas, out of approximately 3,000 guests, more than one in three (1,242) spoke to a Samaritan at Crisis centres, underlining what a lonely, depressing time of year it can be and the fact that the services Crisis provide can be lifesavers. In addition to the on-site counselling, something as simple as providing access to the internet at the Christmas centres can also turn lives around. At a briefing, a Key-Vo tells us a story of a homeless man for whom Crisis tracked down his daughter on Facebook last Christmas. She lives on the south coast and had no idea where her father was and the predicament he was in. As soon as Crisis contacted her, she invited her father to move in with her and start rebuilding his life.

Last Christmas, out of approximately 3,000 guests, more than one in three (1,242) spoke to a Samaritan at Crisis centres, underlining what a lonely, depressing time of year it can be and the fact that the services Crisis provide can be lifesavers.

My own 2011 Christmas in Crisis has been an uplifting, life-affirming experience — so much so that I’m planning to do an extra shift before the week’s out — and I’d recommend anyone considering volunteering for Crisis to do it. It is truly the ‘Big Society’ in action, rather than David Cameron’s politically expedient version. It offers a safe environment to interact with people who you may be too scared to approach in the street. We label them as ‘homeless’, but they are really just people like you or I. Whether you can offer specialist skills, a sympathetic ear or nothing more than the willingness to muck in, you can make a valuable contribution to the cause.

Over the past couple of days, just as I’ve met a huge diversity of guests, I’ve worked alongside volunteers from all backgrounds — students, traders, management consultants, performance poets, property developers, former Crisis at Christmas guests… all sorts. And many of the volunteers I spoke to, like me, have that nagging feeling we spend much of our lives doing jobs and worrying about things that are fundamentally inconsequential. That is not the case when you help out at Crisis, where you will get back far more than you give. As one of the Key-Vos, a white-collar worker who is working at the centre every day through the Christmas period, comments, “Unlike in my job, I feel like what I do here is actually appreciated — that’s why I keep coming back year after year.”

Unlike most jobs too, in these recessionary times when workforces are being slashed, at Crisis, the sheer numbers of volunteers (on my second day, there are 110 volunteers for 145 guests) means that there’s always people around to help you when things go wrong. It’s just a brilliant, supportive atmosphere for volunteers and guests alike.

But like a puppy, Crisis is not just for Christmas. It may be the showpiece event of the year which grabs most media attention for the charity (indeed, this year, Crisis was one of nine UK charites to benefit from ITV1’s festive fundraising extravanganza, Text Santa), but Crisis are not in the business of just giving handouts. The charity’s aim is to change lives of people who have fallen through the cracks in our society and they have had significant success in this regard. In 2010/11, 2,699 people participated in a Crisis learning activity at the Skylight centres in London, Newcastle and Birmingham, 314 people moved into work, 382 participated in vocational training programmes, and 57 recipients of Crisis Changing Lives grants gained paid employment or became self-employed.

A daft concept, maybe, but it works.

To donate to Crisis via Justyn’s fundraising page:

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/justynbarnes

For more information on Crisis:

www.crisis.org.uk

For an altogether less favourable story about charity...

Why I Hate Children In Need

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