Part 1: Two words
There is a temptation during Yuletide to forget many things. Surrounded by loved ones, presents and excessive food and booze, it’s easy to distance our thoughts from work and the hysterical news headlines constantly peddling doom.
Understandably we immerse ourselves into a two week-long cosy suspension of reality, a consciousness complimented by fluffy animated features or Christmas television specials topped with another (large) glass of claret.
For thousands of volunteers, however, the week-and-a-half long break provides an opportunity to give up a few hours to help those who are less fortunate, ignored, and stigmatized because of an irrational belief that somehow they brought it all on themselves.
Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, has been running its Crisis at Christmas scheme for 39 years, making it possible for the ostracised to forget their solitude for at least a few hours a day.
One month ago, on Christmas Eve (and later on 29 December), I joined other volunteers at Crisis’ west London Day Centre at my old sixth form college, Hammersmith and West London College in Barons Court.
It certainly changed since I last graced its corridors. The college was transformed into a lively, warm and vibrant centre complete with (among others): a cinema area, hairdressing salon, doctor’s surgery, canteen, sports hall, shower facilities and representatives from Samaritans and Alcoholics Anonymous. One could even book a masseuse and practice yoga.
I chose Hammersmith (Crisis had many centres around the country) chiefly because of my Polish roots. With west London traditionally being an area where most of Poland’s post war émigrés settled (the Polish Social and Cultural Association is nearby) I thought the knowledge of my parents’ language would come in handy.
The afternoon shift for which I volunteered (15.00 – 22.00) began 15 minutes earlier with a briefing to give staff a chance to be welcomed by the shift leaders, talked through what to expect (in case they missed the mandatory two-hour introductory session a few weeks before), and to highlight issues/concerns arising from the morning shift.
Following the light-hearted talk, I was posted by the front gate with other “vols”. Our job was, chiefly, to welcome our guests but we were also allocated to perform other tasks. Armed with a two shiny silver clicker counters, I was responsible for keeping track of guests entering and leaving the building.
Upon entry our diverse guests were easier to spot. Some were shy, others nervous, while a few were rather more forthright. As to be expected, many appeared unkempt from sleeping rough. Mainly, however, it was all their worldly belongings in tow that gave them away.
Clicking out was troublesome. A haircut, shave and shower – in addition to donated clothes – had a transformational effect. Were they guests or volunteers? I could no longer tell.
An hour later, when the shifts were changed, I was paired up with Fiona, a lovely woman whose husband was also volunteering that day. We sat by the door leading to the sports hall and showers. Our job was to make sure that guests without towels (there was a shortage that day) were not allowed through.
Within minutes Rich, a 51-year-old African-American Brooklynite, waltzed over to us, clutching a bouquet of lilies, moving his hips to a silent beat. Never a day goes by, he told us, without him shakin’ his ass someplace, somewhere. An organiser of tee-total hostel parties, he was a charmer and clearly popular, as various slaps on the back from passing guests demonstrated.
Pulling out his smartphone to show old family photographs, he bemoaned the gentrification (or demise) of the New York City of the 80s: “[Hard-nosed New York attorney turned city mayor] Giuliani? He ruined everything – robbed the city of its soul.”
Didn’t he clean it up? Make it a better place? He gave us a burst of his infectious laughter and shook his head. “Man, that place used to be jumpin’. I don’t recognise it anymore.”
He mentions the day a London bus conductor confronted him over his penniless Oyster card, refusing to believe he was homeless because of his clean-cut appearance. “I’m a proud man,” he said, visibly upset. “I wash and keep myself looking good. Don’t judge me because I haven’t a home.”
A toilet break beckoned, and on my return the lilies were lying against the wall and Rich turned into Matt, a man with an uncanny resemblance to Tom Jones, an attraction to Fiona, and eloquent opinions on child custody, social services and the consequences of marital breakdown.
As Matt made it clear he was uninterested in male company, I turned my attention to Paul, a gentle, slightly dazed, man in his 40s who had just emerged from the canteen. He loitered closely, smiling nervously, perhaps thinking how to get the conversation started. I got the ball rolling.
“Yes, the food was nice,” he replied. A diabetic with most of his teeth missing, he pondered whether the potent concoction of medicines he took on a daily basis actually worked. We spoke briefly, but it was clear the prescribed drugs had a significant effect, smothering Paul’s natural personality relentlessly into submission. His eyes were vacant, void of the sparkle I saw in Rich.
Matt, after eavesdropping on Paul’s favourable reviews of the local cuisine, excused himself and left Fiona to grab some festive grub. Just as I was to ask Fiona about their conversation, a small, tubby figure suddenly turned the corner at speed, en route to his feed. He stopped and, inquisitively, approached me and Fiona.
Ashen-faced and with beer on his breath, he proceeded to talk in an undecipherable mix of Polish and English. Spotting my Crisis staff badge with a small Polish flag stuck to the top, he offered his hand.
“You understand!” Adrian joyfully said to me, smiling. With a clenched fist he thumped his left breast. After speaking intensely to us in Ponglish about his cheating wife he turned to me again.
“Nothing can be done for them,” he said in Polish, his demeanour now slightly sinister. For whom? Adrian swung his arm towards the other guests in the canteen. “Them!” He looked me up and down. “And you…”
He grinned, swivelled and entered the food hall. I shrugged as Fiona looked on, perplexed. Then without warning he issued, in his mother-tongue, a single, loud cry: “Peace and liberty!”
It was time for our shift change and back in the vols break-out area, I got talking to Piotr, a Polish volunteer from Krakow who I saw earlier talking to other Polish guests.
“I wanted to give something back,” he explained. “I was a guest last year; Crisis changed my life. Now I try and help whenever I can.”
He mentions the intervention of Barka, a foundation that works with excluded and vulnerable people in Poland. In 2006 the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham contacted Barka to help with the influx of Eastern European migrants, specifically those made homeless.
Piotr told me they offered him a trip home on a mini-bus and a job upon arrival on the condition he stopped drinking. “I was clean for three months. Not a drop,” he said, before alleging that Hammersmith and Fulham council pay considerable sums to Barka to take Poles away. “I waited and waited. There was no job. The bastards just wanted the money – they didn’t care what happened to us when we returned.”
Living back with his parents wasn’t easy. His mother was recovering from a debilitating stroke and was prone to mood swings. “One minute I was her darling son, the next I was a stupid son of a bitch.”
He started drinking again, but “not as much” as he used to. He returned to the UK, found some menial work and a hostel for accommodation. He plans to invite his father over soon. Did he plan to ever return home again? “There’s no work. What’s the point?”
Towards the end of the night I was paired-up and put to use by the entrance, opening and closing doors so the guests, many of whom had been lugging their belongings around, didn’t have to struggle to get in.
My shift partner and I soon decided to keep the doors open at all times, effectively turning ourselves into human door stops, albeit door stops that greeted or said goodbye to guests on their way out.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere as we approached the end of the day turned to sadness and disappointment – mostly for our guests, but also the volunteers. We had no beds, a fact that was highlighted on multi-lingual posters dotted around the college.
It was difficult having to abandon the people we volunteered to help. It left a bitter taste and the evening, which started with such optimism and good nature, was in danger of ending on an anti-climax. Was this really the best we could do?
I was reminded of something I heard from an experienced key volunteer during our two-hour orientation a few weeks prior. He explained that the previous Christmas he successfully convinced an agitated guest to get a free neck and shoulder rub from one of the visiting professional masseurs.
“That’s the first time in years I’ve been touched in a nice way,” she told him afterwards.
Recounting that story made me feel a little better: if for the briefest of moments our guests felt like somebody genuinely cared for them, and they were able to spend a few hours in a place of warmth and security, surely that was enough?
My thoughts were interrupted by a disabled guest who, as he struggled down the stairs to the courtyard, told me he was going to try and infect himself with anything in order to get admitted to hospital. “At least they have heating and beds,” he said. His words came at me like a smack in the face.
What could I say in response? Later that night I’d be curled up indoors under my warm duvet, sleeping soundly, and waking up with a roof over my head and food in my refrigerator – a world away from the cold, bitter evening in Barons Court. It seemed a cruel way to finish their Christmas Eve.
A greying man in his late 50s, hair neatly trimmed and wearing a smart shirt and shoes, was slowly walking out of the door. He looked familiar. I remembered a newcomer earlier that day wandering into the centre, shoes bound together with string, long matted hair and despair etched painfully across his face. The difference was astounding.
I smiled as he approached and he smiled back. He stopped by the door, and as other guests rushed past to catch one of the many minibuses dropping them off in locations around London, he touched my arm and looked me straight in the eyes.
The sincerity of his words rendered me momentarily speechless. I noticed a glint in his eye which was absent when he first arrived. As he descended down the steps I wondered whether that spark would be his catalyst for change – the rest, nourishment and warm-hearted human interaction arming him with enough strength to change his life around and halt the decline.
It was a foolish, naive thought. Nevertheless, I – and the thousands of other volunteers around the UK who will be returning next year – live in hope.
Robert Szmigielski is BMENational’s press officer.
*The names of all the guests mentioned in this article have been changed