Gary is one of our very own members of Wikivorce. Last year he did something a little special with his time and shares his experience with Wikizine...
My Family, wife and two children, 17 & 14, moved out of the family home in October 2008. Once the initial shock subsided and I had busied my self clearing out the last vestiges of family life, rearranging services and bills, taking Christmas decorations to local charity shops etc... my thoughts turned to the prospect of having to spend my first Christmas, after 25 years of spending them with the same person, alone. It had been my birthday less than a month after they left and having received no cards from my kids, I held out little prospects of receiving anything over the festive period.
I toyed with going away on holiday abroad for the week, but thinking about a combination of paying peak time prices and being surrounded by 'happy families' still celebrating the season of goodwill, I thought better of it.
My mind drifted back to a time when I worked in construction managing the refurbishment of an occupied Salvation Army Hostel in Coventry and how they ran/run soup kitchens etc. for homeless people at this time of year. Enter our best friend, Mr Google! I typed in ‘Homeless at Christmas’ and it came up with the name of a London based charity called Crisis. This, I then learned, is a national charity for single, homeless people. They are dedicated to ending homelessness by delivering life-changing services and campaigning for change and, more importantly to me, over Christmas establish, and run, temporary shelters around central London and Newcastle. I found the section on ‘Volunteering’ and, after registering on the site, filled in an online application to become a volunteer.
The form gave various options of shift times (they are staffed 24/7 for the Christmas week) with there being 3 shifts to cover the 24 hour day, and a number of sites. As I had no particular preference I ticked every thing as I just want to show that I was happy to work any where at anytime, obviously other volunteers had other commitments and would have to be more specific.
After I had applied I sat back and reflected on what I’d done and why, as charitable as it all sounds, what really was my motivation? And I have to admit it was all for me, an escape from the hard reality of my situation; any help or difference I made to the homeless was entirely secondary. I then started to feel a bit guilty; I imagined working with all these saintly people and thought they will see straight through me, oh how Divorce does wonders for your self esteem/self worth………
After my initial self doubts, I did slowly come round to thinking about what skills I could bring, and really did question what I thought about homeless people, my time working on a hostel refurbishment and spending a few years in the centre of London/ ‘the city’. I do genuinely believe that very few are there through choice.
I then had to consider the stark realities of possibly attending to a rough sleeper's physical needs... and could I? Would I? I did spend some time working in the night club industry, in fact that’s where I met my 'soon-to-be-ex'… So, having to deal with people with possible drink/drug problems and the challenges they bring, was like water off a duck's back to me. I’m neither intimidated, nor offended by their language and/or behaviour. Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t consider myself in any way aggressive, just that I know how not to get into arguments and possible confrontation with people who are not in the best frame of mind; with possible behaviour issues, amplified by drink in some cases.
That sounds like I think all homeless are violent drunks. I honestly don’t, but did have to think ‘worst case scenario’ and, obviously, some people have never had to deal with these situations I, however, was unlikely to be shocked.
By Mid November, I had received confirmation of my shift times, days required and centre where I was to be deployed. I had been allocated a 'quiet centre', one where the guests are referred to by the rough sleepers, and other centres for various reasons, and it was located in an unoccupied former court building in Islington (awaiting planning permission for conversion in to flats). Obviously no accommodation was provided, so my first task was to try and find myself a cheap hotel, hopefully within walking distance of the Angel end of Islington, not an easy task Christmas week without having to face bankruptcy. But my luck was in, I stumbled across (thanks yet again Mr Google) the halls of residence for a nearby university that rented out rooms on a B&B basis... and only £30 a night! It was opposite the Saddlers Wells' Theatre, a 10 mins walk from my centre: a result!
It was duly booked and paid for, my required shift days that were Tuesday 23rd of December until Monday the 29th: six shifts in total. The weekend preceding the 23rd I dropped off cards and presents for my kids, leaving them on the doorstep of their new accommodation and, not having received anything from them in return, headed off for London on the train early Tuesday morning, in anticipation of my first shift due to begin at 3pm that day.
It didn’t take long to book into my accommodation and dump my case in my room, do a bit of scouting round the local area on my way to my initial shift. Although I had done some research and thought I had a reasonable idea of what to expect, I did approach the building with some trepidation. As I entered the building's vestibule, I was greeted by two fluorescent-jacketed volunteers who found my name on the list, issued me with a white name badge and directed me to a 'volunteers' only' room to await a briefing.
Each shift has a senior volunteer called a ‘Green Badge’ (no prizes for guessing the colour of their name badges) who proceeded to explain fire/emergency arrangements, and as I am a qualified first-aider I was added to the duty roster as such. There are, obviously, certain rules that have to be followed for both our, and our guests' safety and well being. We were discouraged from getting to closely attached to guests, as it has been known for well meaning folk to ‘take in’ people they have befriended only to regret the decision for obvious reasons.
No gifts are allowed due to potential harassment for more, jealousy within the guest community and potential theft.
I was surprised at the number of volunteers: lots! And the diversity, but I hadn’t really considered what to expect. The duties were explained and me and my fellow ‘Vols’, as I learned we are called, were asked to volunteer for: kitchen duties, toilet duties, staffing the main entrance/gate but mainly just supervising the corridors and communal areas - Games/Music and TV rooms . The centre also offered a range of services to our guests, from benefit advice, hair cuts, manicures, reflexology, visiting chiropodists, all provided by volunteers with any useable skills and all these needed supervision and it was explained that we would be rotated on a regular basis.
My first assignment was to supervise the entrance / waiting area for the ‘grooming’ section, I was paired up with a gentleman I shall call ‘Bob’ and he was exactly that: a gentleman. I would guess his age at late 50’s early 60’s, gently spoken and, from his manner etc., I would say well educated - middle management/professional class. As we very politely exchanged pleasantries and small talk a guest, who I assumed was African, judging by his broken-English accent, asked us if this was the grooming section, Bob explained that it was and entered in to a basic conversation with him. When the guest replied that he was from Eritrea, Bob's eyebrows raised slightly and calmly started speaking to him in some foreign language. Well, the guest's eyes nearly popped out of his head as he replied back in the same tongue but in utter amazement! It turns out the ‘dear ol’ Bob’ spent some time out in that part of Africa, with the Foreign office! I just stood there in amazement as they chatted away and the guest was grinning from ear to ear! Rule number 1, never ever pre-judge the other vols! It was one of those ‘life moments’ that I’ll never forget.
The rest of the shift we were moved on to other duties by the green badges; you get paired up with different people doing the various required and, like my experience with Bob, met some very nice and interesting people. The centre was residential so obviously food is served for our guests and as mine was the evening shift, I helped serve dinner. I was issued a yellow tabard and a blue hairnet (anyone who has met me on one of the wiki ‘meets’ will no doubt find the mental picture I’ve just given you attractive!) and spent the next hour running round the building with plates of food and, I have to say I was impressed with the quality and range offered; all this is done on a very tight budget. In some respects my background made it easier to chat to our guests and managed to enter in to a bit of banter that a lot of the other volunteerss just couldn’t do. I think my time in construction helped with that, I had the ‘Craic’ (Gaelic for laugh) with many of the guests as I met up with them on my various duties. My shift finished at 11pm, after we had set up the dormitories and sorted out bedding, we all met up for a debrief on the day's events. By the time I got back to my room at the university I was well and truly exhausted!
So, that's pretty much how I spent the next 6 days. In the mornings I wandered around the centre of London, visiting some of the museums and galleries. To be honest Christmas day itself didn’t feel any different (apart from spending the day wearing a paper hat) to any other, Chrismas Dinner was served for our 100 or so guests, a DVD was played in one of communal rooms on to a big screen and the real highlight was a visit from a local celebrity, in our case Bill Oddie popped in and joined in with some carols.
On reflection, I feel the day itself was a bit subdued, I think we all went through the motions, (reading back I realised when I said ‘we’ I subconsciously meant me and the guests, that’s a very sobering thought...) but, as mentioned before, few are on the streets by choice. As the week went on you do become familiar with many of the guests and many are there due to drink or drug abuse, gambling problems and, even more unfortunately, through divorce; some had truly lost everything.
So, the question I hear you all ask “will you do it again?" Absolutely. I have already filled in my form for this year and await my posting and shift times. This time I have asked for a more challenging centre , preferably one of the ‘dependency’ ones. The charity concerned also asks for set up and tear down volunteers to make the buildings suitable for their purpose during the weekends leading up to and after the holiday period. I am hoping my construction skills may be of some use. As the time approaches I am really looking forward it, it would be nice to meet up with some of the people I worked with last year.
Has my experience affected me? Yes. At the time it did put my current problems in to perspective and how quickly its possible to go from ‘hero to zero’; the slippery slope from having a job, home, cars, a family with kids... to losing it all and how extremely difficult it can be to get back in to ‘main stream’ society. So I do try and see what I have got, not what I haven’t. Will Christmas ever be the same again for me? No. The family side for me has gone, I always thought that side was special to ‘us’ we used to hand-make everything together; always a real tree, all that can never be replaced.
I do hope the spirit will though, with peace and good will to all ‘men’. As they say in Eritrea, “Rhus beal lidet niakan nbimulu bietesen”!