By Lauren Peters
Crisis at Christmas
Put 5,000 of the country’s most vulnerable people in empty schools around the UK and allow 11,000 members of the general public to look after them. How’s that for a Dragons’ Den pitch? Farcical. But it’s what Crisis have been doing for the past 46 years, and it deserves a medal.
Every morning this week I have been getting up at 6am to volunteer at a homeless day centre in Hackney; and every morning this week I have thought to myself ‘absolutely not am I getting up at 6am to trek 54 minutes in the pitch-black-freezing-cold to dish up dinners and search sanitary bins’; and every morning this week I have been reminded of how lucky I am to be this side of the story.
Street counts estimate that around 3,569 people sleep rough in England every night (excluding hidden homeless), with 1 in 4 spending Christmas alone. Crisis is an opportunity for the homeless to enjoy hot food, a shower, clean clothing and any number of the 22 services on offer. From dentistry, to podiatry, to an inter-centre football tournament at the Emirates stadium, Crisis have it all.
Rather than sound out my frustration re inadequate government policy, I thought I’d share a few stories with you instead. If this SCAB does nothing else, I hope it dispels some of the widely held misconceptions about homelessness.
London’s forgotten homeless: anonymous first-person accounts (as far as I can recall)
I used to build structures at Chelsea Flower Show but got tired of all the politics. Why should I stand for the Queen if she won’t stand for me? So I left to start renovating boats. People just don’t have the same appreciation for wooden boats nowadays. Besides, when my wife fell ill I had to dedicate my time to her. She died 7 years ago now. Ever since then I’ve been caring for my mum. She’s got lung cancer. A very difficult woman is my mother.
I tried living in a hostel but they’re either drunk or drugged in there. I don’t drink or do drugs so it’s more hassle than it’s worth. I’m safer on the street. You don’t get no respect though. They walk out of their fancy cocktail bars at 4am – ‘can’t get a job mate?’ – and either rip your sleeping bag away (because that’ll be a proper fucking laugh), flinch (nervous you’ll steal something), or completely ignore you (assuming everyone on the street is lying about needing an egg sandwich when really they’re all gagging for some crack).
I’ve got plans to set up my own business. I’m a book surgeon you see (shows me a book with ‘Merry Christmas’ spelt out in folds). I know it’s viable. I’ve done the maths. But nobody takes you seriously when you’re on the street. Pret a Manger with their ‘we give money to the homeless’. We’re nothing but a commodity to them. Caring for the homeless is fashionable these days.
I served 2 years in the military. It’s compulsory in Turkey. If you don’t want to study it’s 2 years, and if you do, you study and then complete 6 months service afterwards. The situation in Turkey is bad. The government are corrupt, the police… everybody. There have been 15 attacks this year alone. I cannot handle. My family… I have 4 brothers and 3 sisters, as well as my mother to look after. I came to England to support them. I am a volunteer chef for the Red Cross, and I send whatever money I earn temping to my family.
I was born in me nan’s kitchen in Ireland and then smuggled to England coz she wanted me to av’n English passport. Grandad was in the IRA so they weren’t too happy when I joined the army over ere. Beat me up and threw me out. That’s why I need to see the nurse you see. Got a bullet wound on me leg. It’s healed n’that but in winter the cold gets in and it’s fu*king painful I tell ya.
I’ve managed to bag a spot in the basement of this guy’s house yeah? Hasn’t got the first idea how to interact with people. This young lad I know – 19 yeah, got kicked out of his house coz his mum chose her boyfriend over’im yeah? So I took him under my wing. But I can’t have him living with me coz I got social workers and nurses and that coming round all the time yeah, and what if they catch him on the settee? I said you need to get your English up to scratch if you want a job son. So I’m gunna to take him to Crisis Skylight* on Commercial Street to learn English yeah? I mean, what if he gets a job in Tesco and the manager tells him to put the beans out, and instead of baked beans he puts spaghetti hoops? (Laughs).
I’m going to sit here until the film starts. I want to get a good seat. Can you get me some biscuits please? Custard creams are my favourite – if they’ve got any. Thank you so much. I’ll see you outside when it’s over.
(7 minutes later. Waddles outside, held upright with walking stick).
Can you give me a hand opening these biscuits please love – do you mind?
I come here every day. I get a tiny bit cut off the bottom so I can keep coming back. If I got it all cut off at once I wouldn’t be able to. It’s the only time of year I get looked after, so I may as well make the most of it.
The dentist… she told me I have to go to the free walk in clinic down by London Bridge. But I can’t get there. How am I supposed to get there? I’m homeless. I don’t have any transport. (Starts crying). It’s so painful. I don’t know what to do. I can’t eat. Please, can you help me? Please.
End of day debrief
Earlier today, a woman on dialysis had a fall in one of the community showers. She is now in hospital in a critical but stable position. She wanted me to tell you all what a powerful thing it was to have a group of volunteers surrounding her, holding her hand, repeating ‘stay with us, stay with us’. She said it was the first time someone had touched her kindly in 6 years. If it had been on the street, she wouldn’t have survived.
Homeless people live on the street, beg for small change at cash points and try to flog you a copy of the Big Issue. That’s what I thought before volunteering at Crisis. I had very little appreciation for the complexities surrounding why certain people become and remain homeless. Solving homelessness is about much more than just putting a roof over people’s heads. It is about awareness, understanding and compassion.
Pretending not to notice that you’re being asked for money is a lot easier than awkwardly stammering ‘sorry I’ve only got card’. But money isn’t necessary. Human contact is a currency in itself. When you look into someones eyes and give them a moment of your time, you are reaffirming their dignity. You are showing them that you too believe in their self-worth. You are proving to them that they exist.
*Crisis Skylight is a training and employment centre that offers practical and creative workshops in a supportive and inspiring environment.