This has been a weird Christmas for me - only my second ever away from the family. Instead of nipping to friends or jetting away I decided to help out at Crisis - the national charity for single homeless people. It has completely challenged how I think and feel about homelessness.
I won't sugar coat it, you hear awful stories and can be as depressing as it is uplifting. You see people who have lost everything, those who are clearly suffering and those who despite all the knocks they have received continue to get up and fight for a "normal" existence. Everyone I met was friendly and incredibly grateful for the staff and services on offer. I helped out at the South London Centre (a transformed City of London Academy). Services such as doctors, opticians, podiatry, massage and more were available for guests in addition to the usual hot meals, safe environment and (at other locations) a bed to sleep in. What most don't realise is that Crisis has been around since 1967 - a fact that is both tragic and awesome at the same time.
After a good induction you are assigned tasks to complete and are rotated around (I worked with a Royal Marine, a student, a retiree, consultants, clerks, teachers - trust me, there is no type of Crisis volunteer) - during my stay I was part of the main gate team (where you greeted new guests), guest sign desk (where guests are given wristbands and sorted out for services during their stay), luggage area (where guests leave belongings and get items for showering etc), food hall monitoring, clean up and other odd jobs.
What I learned.
1) Rough sleepers are the tip of the iceberg. Drugs, booze, fights and people crying is what most people imagine prior to their first shift. Granted, it's not all plain sailing but the reality is these people are tired. Tired because they've walked for miles, not slept well, life has dealt them multiple blows or are ill from being outside in poor conditions. Most however are not rough-sleepers - that number lies around the 400,000 mark in the UK (most have hostels, are bounced around B&Bs, live in refuge centres, have their own housing or are in other circumstances). These people are, in essence, in purgatory. Either trying to move forward or potentially waiting to slip into a worse situation. Either way it is clear that beyond the statistics, the stereotypes and the realities of what both rough sleepers and non-rough sleepers face, homelessness is a problem on the rise. There are currently +6,000 rough sleepers in London alone, an increase of +62% over the last two years (12/13).
2) You can make a real difference. After two days of gentle reminding I helped a young woman to complete her CV using the computers available. The young woman couldn't believe what she had in her hands and said it was "the start of the next part of her life". Another story that was shared at the end of the shift debrief involved a volunteer who persuaded two foreign ladies to visit the on-site Doctor who had not seen a doctor in over two years.
3) Words move as much as deeds. The amount of guests with smartphones sort of knocked me back a bit when I first started seeing them pop up around the centre (I later learned texting is the lifeblood of many homeless people). I started noticing different guests taking photos of inspirational quotes from people like Henry Ford, Einstein and Aristotle that are above every door in the centre (nothing special or provided by Crisis) but it showed people were taking notice and sometimes quotes can truly inspire.
4) Brands should/must/need to get involved. Pretty much every penny goes on the guests, donations of food, clothes etc all go straight back in to making the guests feel better. If you are a brand with cash, products, services, people... anything (like Colgate were for example), contact the Partnerships team. You have no idea how much stuff makes a difference to the guests.
5) Showing up is not 90%, it's 10%. Far too many people sign up and don't attend or don't get "stuck in with the guests". It's easy to simply complete the task given, smile and nod and carry on but it's more rewarding (for all involved) to ask questions and offer to help the guest. Everyday life can be like this. I have seen it throughout my career, it's easy to just show up and not get involved (it's almost encouraged in this country) so i've decided to call myself and other people on it in 2014 - it's time to get involved.
Helping at Crisis is an experience I won't forget anytime soon. Not because it was bad or harrowing but because it was interesting and challenging. I'm finding it hard to crystallise what I 'got out of it' exactly - many volunteers said "it is rewarding" but it doesn't quite feel right or capture to me - for me it was more of being part of something that is larger than yourself and the feeling of making a difference (however small). I'll be back next year though.