Volunteering with Crisis at Christmas (5)

Yesterday (Christmas Day) was the second of my three shifts as a volunteer with the charity for the homeless Crisis at Christmas. In London, there is no public transport on Christmas Day so, to reach my centre in the middle of town, I had to use my local cab company. This is staffed overwhelmingly by Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who are mostly Hindus so they do not celebrate Christmas. In fact, my particular driver into town was a Bangladeshi Muslim.

Once at the centre, I mingled with other volunteers as we waited for our briefing and duties. The volunteers are an eclectic bunch of wonderful people. I chatted to a young Canadian woman from Nova Scotia who works in the City as an insurance broker for rockets and satellites. I met a young Vietnamese woman who speaks fluent Romanian. The briefing was done by the shift leaders and, as last time, I was impressed at the energy and commitment of these people. You could hook them up to the National Grid and switch off a few power stations.

Outdoor duties are not necessarily the most popular, so I thought I should volunteer for one. Six of us – three men and three women – were allocated to the front doors of the centre to check if people coming in were volunteers (wearing a badge), registered guests (wearing a wrist band), or new guests (needing to be checked in). One of the volunteers was from Germany, another from New Zealand and a third from the Isle of Man (the only one of these ‘countries’ that I have not visited). The weather was surprisingly mild for Christmas Day and I was wrapped up, so it was fine.

The problem was that many of the volunteers took so seriously the injunction to “dress down” that it was not always easy to distinguish a volunteer from a guest and we had to ask to see the badge or wristband. Then, with the new guests, we were supposed to conduct something called “a verbal pat down” which meant establishing that the individual had no alcohol, drugs or weapons. I don’t think any of us quite worked out how we were meant to do this, so we just used our judgement.

One of the guests came out, working on his smartphone and was a bit upset that we had no WiFi. Another of the guests who came out for a smoke told me how the previous evening he had accompanied a friend to hospital because the friend – also homeless and on the streets – had had his faced bashed in. To my amazement, he dived into a satchel, pulled out an expensive-looking, lap top, and proceeded to show me a video of the two of them in the accident & emergency section of the hospital (his friend’s face was covered in blood and bruises). Then this guest told me that he was member of Anonymous – I always thought that members of this cyber-hacking group were, well, anonymous … He went on to announce that he was also a soothsayer …

After an hour and half on outdoor duties, I was brought inside to staff the entrance barriers together with the German volunteer. I had to click a counter every time someone entered the building and she had to do the same every time someone left. I suppose this was to assist with a body count in the case of an evacuation or fire, but I can assure you that our counting was not an exact science. I took the opportunity to have a long chat with one of the guests. He was about my age, very well-spoken, genuinely charming, and had managed a moderately successful career as a technical designer – but his life story and health issues were tragic. He fled from his home as a teenager to escape an abusive father, had never married, had looked after his mother as she was slowly killed by dementia, had many acquaintances but no real friends. He was seriously obese and suffered from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and fluid retention and he could only walk by pushing his wheelchair.

Meanwhile all sorts of other activities were going on for the entertainment or support of the guests, including sewing, manicuring, computing, carol singing, addiction advice, natural healing (whatever that is), and even a showing of “Star War VII: The Force Awakens”.

After two and a half hours on my feet constantly, I took a short break before volunteering – as I did on my first shift – to serve dinner. I really enjoyed this because it was so satisfying, but it took longer (two hours) and was even more intense than last time because Christmas dinner involved so many items. For most guests, it was turkey, pork, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, carrots, parsnips and of course sprouts. For the vegetarians, it was a butternut squash dish or a vegetarian chilli. Dessert was Christmas pudding, mince pies and cup cakes. One of my tables had a bunch of Poles on it and they were delighted when I offered a few phrases in Polish.

Dinner time at the Crisis centres is quite an occasion. Most guests are polite and appreciative, but some become quite agitated, complaining that they are not being served quickly enough or later that some others or should be allowed to serve themselves.  It’s actually a miracle that hundreds of hot and nourishing meals are cooked and served so quickly and efficiently.

I made myself an omelette before leaving home and took to the centre a couple of cakes and apples. That was enough for me. I love a traditional Christmas meal, but missing it was massively compensated by the amazing comaraderie at the centre.

My cab ride home arrived for me before the debrief was complete, so I don’t have any statistics for this shift, except one which I picked up later: 628 meals were served at the centre  on Christmas Day.  Whereas normally I can reach central London for free on the bus and tube because I have a Freedom Pass, this time I had to pay – with tips – £70 for my travel. But it was worth every penny.


  • Janet

    Glad you are finding it so fulfilling Roger.

  • Tess Jessop

    Roger, on Christmas Eve I went to church as usual to worship. I think God, or Jesus or whatever deity you believe in, would have approved of your desire to give rather than receive. Good for you (and the other volunteers!)


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