Volunteering with Crisis at Christmas (6)

Yesterday (Tuesday) was the third and last of my shifts as a volunteer with the charity for the homeless Crisis at Christmas.

As I waited for the briefing to begin for the expected 170 volunteers, I spoke to two other volunteers: one guy who works in the travel sector and another doing a PhD in molecular chemistry. Since, by now, most volunteers had attended a briefing, the shift leader decided to jazz up the presentation of the instructions and messages. They were written down on four pieces of paper and the volunteers were divided into four groups, so that each group could role play the text on their paper and the other volunteers had to guess what was being communicated. Good fun.

For the guests, there were all the usual activities with singing and bingo proving popular and the film of the day being “Aliens”. Dinner, when it arrived, was gammon or ratatouille followed by bread pudding. But, on this shift, I barely got to talk to any guests and I did not serve dinner. Instead I had a lot of standing around outside and some sitting around inside.

So my first duty was to ‘guard’ a back entrance for vehicles. Absolutely nothing happened, but I got to wear a high visibility jacket and hold a walk talkie and to talk to my fellow volunteer. She was a recent English graduate now working in publishing, so we spent the time discussing novels. I was saddened to hear that her debts as a graduate are £35,000 which apparently is quite typical.

Next I had a so-called “gap duty” inside. A gap duty simply involves sitting in front of doors or desks or toilets making sure that the wrong people do not go to the wrong area. The way to survive gapping is yapping, and once again I had a young woman with whom to converse. She had worked with Crisis at Christmas as an 18 year old, when she was estranged from her family and – as she put it – “sofa surfing”. That was seven years ago and, since then, she had got her act together, re-established relations with her family, and obtained a degree in drama and dance.

We were visited by a full-time membar of staff from Crisis who wanted to know about our experience and views. Also one the homeless guests wanted us to sign his green goalkeeper’s shirt before he signs with the second team of a noted London football team. Another guest who engaged with us was a Dutch guy wearing a giant leprechaun hat.  Sometimes Crisis at Christmas is surreal …

My final duty was another outdoor stint, this time on the main doors where I worked for a time on Christmas Day. Again there was little to do. Two guests – a white man and a black woman – who apparently were a couple stood a little way from us engaged in a ferocious argument that had something to do with the use by the man of the N word.  I spoke to a Polish guest who ran a small business back in his home country but was really struggling to start a similar operation here.

As always, there were other fascinating and affable volunteers with whom to engage. One was a solicitor of a Greek Cypriot background who specialises in mental health law. We were lamenting the political horrors of 2016 and I was trying to put a favourable view on possibilities for 2017, but he he told me that he feared for “the whole direction of western society”.

On the this sombre note, my three seven-hour shifts with Crisis at Christmas 2016 came to an end. We did not solve homelessness; we did not change the world; but hopefully we made life a little better for a short period for people in real need. I met some wonderful people – both guests and volunteers – and found the experience satisfying and sobering. I will certainly remember it.


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