Love and Copy In The Third Millenium

January 18, 2011

A London Christmas with the homeless

Filed under: Uncategorized — dearlove @ 12:05 am

Newly single and with no family in town, I decided that Christmas 2010 was the year I would do some volunteering.

Maybe you have the same movie image in your head: trestle tables with vats of hot soup, steaming into the (NY) city night. Jennifer Aniston spooning the good stuff for a crew of matted destitutes. Slow pan to carol singers.

After some deft googling, I found a BBC article. Though it was five years old, it took me to the right place. Crisis at Christmas. The biggest volunteer operation in Europe.

Crisis opened nine different shelters in London this year but I indicated no preference, thinking I’d be flexible since I had no plans.

Whatever Christmas means to you, and whether you’re religious or not, it’s a good time to help the homeless. At Christmas, homeless people really miss family and their old lives. It’s also a time when we all reassess things as we face the year ahead, so a great time to get in with some of the potentially life changing services that Crisis at Christmas offers, like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, counselling and housing advice.

The idea of the centres is to give homeless people the services and companionship denied to them all year, as well as hot meals and a bed. At the day centres, doctors, dentists, masseurs, healers and hairdressers donate their time.

In the end, I drew the Dependency Centre (DC) at a highly secret location. At first, I speculated that the secrecy was to keep narco-peddling scum out. In fact, it’s because evening accommodation (which the DC includes) is limited and sought after and you must be referred to become a Guest (as the visitors are known.

I’d chosen Christmas night as my first shift, and since there was no transport that day, I’d been on the Crisis bulletin board trying to make plan.

In about five minutes, a chap called Dominic sent me a lovely email me and we arranged a lift.

First shift: 8:00 Christmas night.

Christmas night rolled around and the morning’s nerves passed. Excitement, curiosity, anticipation prevailed.

I walked to the pick up point early and stood about shivering. I was layered up like Tutankhamen, wearing two scarves. Half past the hour produced the man: a bloke in a clapped out blue Rover waving across Tooting High Street.

Dom turned out to be a laid back, likable chap. I always struggle to carbon date bald men, but I suppose he was about 35. Like your narrator, he was new to all this. Also like your hero, he was newly single (this would become something of a theme).

In Brixton, we picked up Stefan, another volunteer. He sounded South African; a suspicion confirmed in a few minutes when he answered his phone in Afrikaans. Stef had volunteered the year before, so there was no chance of an awkward silence between the three strangers: we grilled him all the way there and Dom and I got partly to know what lay ahead.

Stefan was so chilled out about it. I began to look forward to it even more. Even as he described occasional trouble, he seemed chilled out.

Navigating with my capricious iPhone satnav, we made several cockups that would have spelled trouble on any other night. But the roads were utterly empty, so no one saw us pull u-turns onto Tower Bridge.

The winding blue line on my map settled down and began to follow the Thames. We were now on a straight course east for Gallion’s Reach, a DLR stop near City Airport.

Now that I had a good idea of where we were headed, I took some time to stare out the window.

Really cold nights seem to chase away light as well as warmth: the lit up buildings looked cut out against the sky.

Docklands only gets more Bladerunneresque when you’re the only car on the road …

Nothing was stirring, but the city was lit up like the proverbial tree. Everyone had pissed off home and left the lights on.

After endless roundabouts, the road gave way to gravel and we came to the shelter, a strip of corporate greyness with the name BUHLE.

At the gate, two shivering high visibility vests steered us to Entry Point B, probably glad they would soon be relieved. The building ran the length of a disused dock, retained as a concrete clad water feature. The water looked ominous, jet black and starting to freeze over.

As we walked, we could see the glass walled main room to out left, giving a first glimpse of guests and volunteers. About a hundred people bustling about in the bright room, reflected in the black water.

We signed in, pinned on badges and went up to our briefing room.

As always, I let my attention drift and soon I was casually assessing my fellow volunteers.

Rather than the expected collection of liberals, loons and fifty something Christians, my fellow volunteers were mostly cool young people. Largely cooler and younger than J.A. Dearlove anyway.

One chap, Steve stood out and not just for the disarmingly crap jokes he kept lobbing during the briefing. Bald head, manic twinkling eyes massive handlebar moustache. A heavy metal Santa. He turned out to be one of the best volunteers, what you might call a natural. Just someone who doesn’t have to force themselves to give a shit, they just can’t help it. Nutters.

Tasks were offered, hands went up. I was given gap duty of the massage area. (Gap duty involves nothing more than guarding a gap: a place where guests might sneak through to an off limits area). On the way down, I remembered I had brought some DVDs, which were in short supply. I mentioned it and was sent back to get them. By the time I got back down, I had lost my mojo a bit and wasn’t sure where I was meant to be. I bumbled up to a volunteer and said ‘Is this the massage area?” He was either confused or a smart arse, but his reply of “I aint doing you a massage matey” threw me, so I found a chair near what I presumed was roughly the right spot, blushing and feeling like a dick.

Whatever task you’re on, one thing is made quite clear. The most important thing you can offer in here is companionship. The magic of a kind word. Chat to guests, make them feel like normal, likable people.

Now here’s the thing. I can be crashingly, paralytically shy, especially in new and awkward situations. I’d hoped that my first few tasks would involve some buffering activity like handing over hot tea or fluffy towels.

Instead, I’m just … sitting. I know I could get away with this, but I also know I’ll regret it later. And besides what will I write for the bloody Facebook note I’ve foolishly promised? Time to man up. A dreadlocked black man with sad eyes sits next to me. Here goes. “You aright? First time here?” I’ve checked and he definitely has no volunteer badge on. “Had a good Chri…? but he wanders off before I get to be a good listener about life on the street. WHICH is just as well, because I spot him ten minutes later with a volunteer’s badge on …

Back to sitting on my own, guarding the bloody gap. And we’re supposed to be in a pair, so where’s the experienced volunteer I’m meant to have with me? After half an hour of feeling useless, I spotted a key vol and asked if I could do something else.

He looked a bit panicked (not the military precision I was expecting – it turned out night shifts were a bit more organic) and look quickly around the room. “No, we’re fine for now, why don’t you just mingle?” Shit.

I remembered from the first briefing being told that if you sit down next to an empty chair, a guest will usually come over for a chat. This isn’t true.

Right. Just chat. Seriously, just go over there and chat. OK.

Fuck it. I pull a chair and ask three guys at a table if I can join them. Dave and John and a volunteer, Ash. Names have been changed. Of the two, Dave looks like problems are worse. Certainly his drink problem. He’s drinking neat vodka though later is persuaded by John to mix with OJ.

For now, Dave’s not what you might call fully compos, so I start talking to John. Over the next half hour, John will begin to tell me his story. How he was got lucky with a brilliant job in America and had his choice of beautiful big houses (he’s a builder and was developing properties). How he met a beautiful Panamanian woman and slowly succeeded in dazzling her with wit and nice homes. (You can see he is clearly still in love with her). They got engaged. Life was good. His visa was coming up for renewal but someone said, he might as well wait until they were married, and it would al be ok. Next thing you know, he’s in an immigration slammer for three months and is then deported. He hasn’t seen the girl since. It was the beginning of the end. I’ll hear the next and even more heartbreaking chapter on my next shift, on the 27th.

As I said, also at the table with us was a volunteer called Ash, a really nice chap who’s also on his first Crisis Christmas. He seems more at ease than I feel. You meet such a varied cross section of professions at Crisis, and as well as being a part time mental health counseller, Ash is a professional wrestler.

John says most people are only three paydays away from the street; Ash says he reckons less than that. Ash and I start to chuckle, then stop dead, both realising making light of things might be insensitive. Awkward pause …

… which is quickly ended by Dave jerking out of his drunken reverie tand pouring his heart out. Maybe he’s trying to justify the boozing, maybe he’s thinking out loud, maybe he just wants to share. But whether confessional, therapeutic or otherwise, he suddenly tells us all about it. Being raped as a child, being regularly beaten by his father. And how his world ended at Christmas five years ago when his Nan, the only person who had ever loved him died. That’s when he started to drink. Dave is not a big Christmas fan.

This upsets me and casts a slight shadow on the night. Soon, a key vol gathers me up and tells me to follow him. Duty calls, stern daughter of the voice of God.

During the briefing, I had glanced around the room and noticed a quirkily attractive woman with a steely manner. She had a boy’s name and was beginning to exercise a mild fascination over me – you know how you’re oddly drawn to people. So I was glad to see her when I arrived at my next duty: guarding a gap in the second and supposedly quieter bedroom. In this case, the gap was a fire escape door. Nusuth.

The people we were relieving briefed us on recent events. There had been a spot of trouble between two guests. One had been crying out in his sleep (You have to wonder at what inner pain these people may bear) and his closest neighbour had been getting annoyed. This annoyance had prompted a dramatic tipping of the nocturnal wailer from his camping bed. (Which was less funny later when I realised that the tippee was elderly and on crutches, poor old soul.)

All we were meant to do was guard the gap, but girl with a boy’s name had other ideas. It was chilly in the huge room, and she took it upon to seek out a room full of extra blankets, which she began to drape over select sleeping forms. After admiring her humanity and pro activity her for ten minutes, I decided to get involved and got some myself. As I wandered about covering people up,quite deep emotions welled up. Not just the feeling that you’re a fine and lovely fellow. But a strong sense of our mutual humanity, of all being on this weird monkey ride together. I am not religious at this moment in my life, but the story of Christ washing the feet of his disciples has always resonated strongly.

The night was still young. More to follow.

Disclaimer: if you feel that any of the language I’ve used is disrespectful, overly sentimental, or politically incorrect, shut the fuck up. I didn’t see you in there wading through needles and scrubbing bogs.

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