By Zoe Jessica Dawson
I spent Christmas Eve volunteering at Crisis @ Christmas, a charity that helps out London’s homeless community at what is a very difficult time of year. I feel like a bit of a fraud writing about it, as though talking about volunteering takes away from the volunteering, but write a SCAB this holiday I must, and I haven’t found the time to watch a movie. So here are my thoughts…
My mum has volunteered at Crisis for a few years now, originally as a distraction from the Christmas time my brother and I would spend up north with our dad, and every year I find myself feeling a combination of pride and jealousy. Pride that while most of the world was arguing with family over a decadent meal, my mum was talking to the lonely and serving food to the hungry, and jealous because I saw more value in the latter but was doing the former.
So, this year, I signed up too.
Two 7 hour shifts, from 3-10pm on the 24th and 25th of December, at a school in Hackney.**
The day’s events weren’t entirely clear, but I knew the premise was to provide a welcoming safe space for individuals that are homeless to spend the Christmas period. They could come to get warm, fed, showered… Find some new clothes, see doctors/dentists/therapists, have haircuts and manicures… And fingers crossed receive the education and support to get them off the streets for good.
I guessed I’d spend it making hot chocolate, serving turkey, and trying to tactfully spread some of my painfully privileged festive joy.
I actually spent it arguing about Brexit with a European immigrant that had been failed by the British government, trying to defend the existence of creativity to an eccentric writer who’d lost faith in his own intelligence after years of being overlooked, empathising with a young bisexual man whose family had been incapable of accepting his boyfriend, watching a brother and sister bond over their favourite Christmas song that they hadn’t heard in years and so, so much more.
One of the things I was asked to do was to go around and convince people to sign up for karaoke. We’re talking a school dining room full of men in their 50s, sober, at 5 o clock in the afternoon, being asked by an overly smiley 22 year old girl in a Christmas jumper to stand up and sing in front of everyone. ‘Fat chance, love,’ ‘only if you make it worth my while,’ and simply ‘ha!’ made up the majority of my responses, but the exceptions were truly memorable.
There was Eddy, who sang 3 Elvis songs because he couldn’t choose his favourite. Mike, who brought the room (well, me) to tears with Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence. Johnny who asked to sing along to a Maroon 5 youtube video instead of performing with a backing track, and an old man who thought it was an x-factor style competition and he was ‘through to the next round’.
My favourite was a woman with no front teeth that belted out I Try by Macy Gray to an audience out of their seats, dancing together between the tables.
These moments were just a fraction of those that made the day emotional, and I’d have to fill a whole lot of SCABs to write all the amazing stories I heard. The statistics we were given at the end of the day were enough on their own to give me goosebumps – on Christmas eve we fed 248 people, found beds for 45 and permanent housing solutions for many of those including a disabled woman and her dog. A number of guests from previous years had popped in to say they’d made their way off the streets, gotten sober or reunited with family. One man had left the day before with his fresh haircut and new clothes and bumped into an ex-employer, who’d given him a job on the spot.
The people at Crisis, which is a year-round operation not just a Christmas charity, make a real difference to homelessness in the UK, and it was genuinely a privilege to be part of it for just one day. There’s no doubt I’ll be back next year, and I urge anyone reading this SCAB to give it a go as well!
** I only ended up completing the Christmas Eve shift, as I picked up a bug on the job and spent Christmas day in bed. Karma’s got a sense of humor, eh.