… I want to ask a favour of each of you.
I love London, a sprawling mismatch of a city with everything good and bad about it that you will find anywhere people, lots of people, live cheek by jowl.
And, as with every city, in amongst its citizens are those who fall through the cracks.
For several years now I’ve volunteered at Christmas to work for a UK homeless charity called Crisis. Set up in 1967 with a view to ending the shame of homelessness it still runs. Indeed it is, and the need for it is, bigger than ever.
It functions throughout the year but is best known for providing a range of help and services over the Christmas period at centres (often based in Academy schools that have closed for the holidays) around London (and increasingly around the country).
Over the course of the week that straddles Christmas we provide three meals a day, doctors, dentists, opticians, chiropodists, hair salons, massage, wellness, yoga and pilates as well as a clothing bank, advice on housing, jobs, legal and benefit issues as well as entertainment. There are art, music and IT facilities, befrienders and showers and a sports hall providing table tennis, indoor soccer and basketball. All run by volunteers.
Here are some stats I’ve just been sent. This year at Crisis at Christmas around the country:
Each day we had about 200 guests and the atmosphere is truly special (if sometimes a little fraught given the situation a number of guests are currently experiencing).
There are many reasons why the guests find themselves in the situations they do: relationship breakdown, leaving home, ex Forces or prison, mental health issues, tenancies ending, financial problems. They are every race, colour, creed, religion, sex, personality, age and, given this is London, nationality. There is no common thread beyond their desperate situation.
Well, one other and this is where you come in.
They are all human. They crave respect. Recognition if you will. Most people see the homeless when they beg; when the sit in an alcove or by a shop or underpass. A lot of people don’t know what to do. Give money and fear it will go on booze or drugs? Feel threatened? Offer food or clothes to have it rejected and being left feeling embarrassed?
All of which reactions are understandable and, of course, whether you give food or money or clothes is up to you. But whatever else you do, please PLEASE acknowledge them. Smile, look, best of all speak to them. If there is one piece of feedback we receive regularly it is that the Christmas event treats them like they were part of a community – the family of humans. That’s what they want at the most basic, most visceral level. If you saw someone fall over and hurt themselves you’d go to that person and ask if you can help. You’d engage with them, showing sympathy. Empathise.
It’s no different to the homeless. That you don’t or can’t give them anything is really a side issue. But please, if you make a resolution this first of January, let one of them be ‘I will speak to someone who is homeless and show them some respect, some love’. It won’t always lead to a smile back. You may be ignored or possibly, though it hasn’t happened to me the many times I’ve done it, shouted at. But when someone thanks you, looks genuinely touched, believe me when I say it will warm the cockles of your heart.
If you want to do more then perhaps consider this project
Or a variation suggested by a volunteer: she posed the question – how many women amongst the volunteers had a handbag they hadn’t used for two years? And how many sachets of shampoo or samples of soaps and spare cotton buds, tampons etc. do you have tucked away in a cupboard? Well make up a handbag and when you see a homeless woman offer it to them. Believe me, they will be truly grateful. Small things count for a lot.
Do have a truly epic 2016 and know this: you can and will be a better person if you begin by being a better person to yourself.