A Jacket And Nail Clippers

Not sure where I’m going with this.

Readers who’ve followed me for a while will know that every Christmas for the last few years I’ve spent some time volunteering at one of the Crisis For Christmas shelters that appear for a week over the festive season and provide a mix of food, advice, referrals, clothes, entertainment and a variety of services (doctor, dentist, podiatrist, physiotherapist, opticians, reiki, natural healing, various programmes such as AA, CA, NA and so on) to the still significant homeless and lonely population of London (as well as other cities). Sadly an operation started in 1968 with the avowed aim of ending homelessness has failed in that aim but it hasn’t ceased trying.

The Crisis team I’m part of take over a school – a Harris Academy for those who know what I mean – and it contains a range of splendid facilities. Every day from the 23rd to the 30th the doors are opened at 9 am to enable anyone who wants our services to have breakfast – a very full English plus cereal and copious toast, tea and coffee, followed by lunch – three courses including soup, and then dinner – another three courses – plus endless tea, coffee and biscuits. There’s an IT room, an area for prayer, film shows and sleep space, art, crafts and games, including a mixed ability range of karaoke. There’s a sports hall where table tennis and indoor football takes place. Clothes are sewn and clothes are provided too.

I’m a general volunteer. Everyone here is a volunteer.  This week so far I’ve helped man the front gate; organise the loop buses that go round and collect and drop people off, washed up using a shit-scary industrial dishwasher – 200 breakfasts in an hour or so: whew! I’ve manned doors that we keep closed because they lead to bits of the school we don’t use – guests are notorious for checking out every corner; I’ve cleaned toilets and showers and helped at the volunteer sign in desk when the afternoon shift appeared – every day there are two shifts of volunteers: 7.45 am to 4 pm and 3 pm to 10 pm (overnight accommodation is provided elsewhere).

Two days ago,  I was in clothing. My job was to take guests orders. We then have runners between we front of house and the clothing store where many busy bees are sorting all sorts of donations. About half an hour into my turn on the front desk a man turned up. He smiled then hung his head. he spoke very quietly as we tried to tease out his christian name for the order slip. It took a while to realise he’d come straight to us and was desperate to wash his hands – his hands were ingrained as often the long term rough sleeper’s hands are. Having shown him where he could go and offered to take him to the shower facilities – declined – he sat for a while studying his clean but red raw palms.

‘I’m Hristoff (I’ve changed his name for this piece). My jacket…’

He pinched his jacket in his fingers. The material was thin, originally quilted but now puffed in patches where the stitching had blown. Moisture oozed between his tips. Even though it hasn’t rained for a coupe of days it was sodden. We put ‘outdoor jacket, men’s, medium’ on the docket.

‘Do you need anything else?’

He shook his head. His English was fair but maybe he hadn’t understood.

‘Pants, socks? T shirt, shirt?’ I began a mime using my own clothes as a guide. I did it twice. Eventually he admitted yes, T shirt and pants and a jumper would be great.

‘Socks?’

He was adamant, no.

I’d glanced at his feet. His shoes seemed sound but I was pretty sure fresh socks would be welcome. My colleague asked him where he was from originally and teased it out of Hristoff. He smiled. ‘Won’t be a mo.’

We waited. A minute or so later he reappeared with a young woman volunteer and we explained what we were trying to find out. She spoke to Hristoff in his mother tongue. You could see him relax a little. We all three smiled a lot though Hristoff remained serious. Eventually, Hristoff admitted that, yes, socks would be delightful and the reason he was so reluctant to ask was the state of his feet. He hated his feet. His toenails hadn’t been clipped in weeks and they were filthy and smelly. He was deeply ashamed.

The senior volunteer – the senior vols organise a section and Sophia is a star – came over and took Hristoff with her to the podiatrist. The fellow national went along to explain. They booked him an appointment for later.

As it happened, I’d been moved around a couple of times so that, by 2 pm I was front of house at services looking after podiatry and physiotherapy. Hristoff appeared. He’d had a haircut – did I say we do hair, nails and pedicures? – and two meals. He carried a bag in which he had a new jacket (he said, when I asked – well we mimed – that he thought it too good and wasn’t sure if he should wear it). He went off with the podiatrist with that small half smile: still unsure, still embarrassed but getting what he needed. He held out his hand to shake mine and his smile widened. A little.

Today, my last day I crossed paths with Hristoff; back on toilet duty again, he was waiting for a friend. His friend beamed. Hristoff was serious again, but a different serious, a relaxed serious. His friend explained. Hristoff had made him come, for a shower some food and, best of all the dentist to treat a tooth. ‘First time pain free in ages,’ he confided. He let himself be lead off.

We haven’t found Hristoff or his friend accommodation; we haven’t resolved whatever are the problems they have that put them on the streets in the first place and tomorrow we won’t be able to provide them and many others with these services. It’s a sticking plaster on a deep open wound. I’m certain that for as long as I can, I’ll volunteer at Crisis and there will be a Crisis for me to volunteer at. And there will be plenty of Hristoffs and others in need of our little help.

But if meeting Hristoff reteaches me anything it’s that every little counts and you should never ever fall into stereotyping. Hristoff isn’t an addict as best one can guess. He may have mental health issues – I’m bloody sure I would in his situation. But at root he is just a bloke with a lot of problems and someone who, when offered even a little help, relaxed and grew just a little.

If you see someone sitting in a  shop door, head down, maybe begging, maybe not, think about Hristoff. For sure, at that precise moment you can do bugger all practical to help. Ok, you might bung him some money but, sure, you don’t have to. But care. A little for the plight of a fellow human. Smile, make eye contact, say hi, ask if they’re ok. If you’ve time stop and ask about their day. They really don’t bite. They’ve fallen through a crack which, believe me, we can all fall through and your time, that most precious commodity we treat with such contempt, is such an incredible gift. Give just a little and you never know what it might do, both to Hristoff but also to you.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
This entry was posted in Crisis at Christmas, homelessness, hope, London, miscellany, thought piece and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to A Jacket And Nail Clippers

  1. Ritu says:

    I applaud you and all the volunteers for all you do to help those in need His Geoffleship 🙏🏼💜

    Liked by 1 person

  2. willowdot21 says:

    I know you do this wonderful thing each Christmas Geoff and I do so admire you. As you say this is a problem that we may never solve. All we can is as you suggest give a little time and compassion, a sandwich,a coffee or just a chat. Thank you Geoff. Thank you.💜

    Liked by 2 people

  3. noelleg44 says:

    Well done, Geoff, and well written. Thanks to all who help at these shelters. Feet are often the last things that get taken care of, but can be the most important!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      How true, the podiatrists are up there with the dentists and hairdressers as the most popular services. For a man lacking much a’top it is a marvel to me how much something as simple as a haircut can make such a difference to self esteem.

      Like

  4. This needs a wider publication in national newspapers and such. Thank you Geoff for this powerful reminder of those in need – there but for the grace of God etc – and the things I can do to help ease their plight.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great work! I volunteer here up in Cambridge and agree completely if you haven’t much to give yourself then that smile or little hello and chat can go just as far as anything else for our homeless. An insightful post and interesting for me to read about the volunteering work in London in comparison to Cambridge 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I will remember Hrstoff the next time. Great advice, Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Such a valuable help you are Geoff. As you rightly say we can all slip into bad times and compassion is the least we can show.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. JT Twissel says:

    Sounds like your crisis center is doing outstanding work. It only takes a series of misfortunes or bad decisions to end up needing help. A very happy New Year to you and your family!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for this, Geoff. You were doing a lot even before you wrote this piece, which does even more.

    Like

  10. pjlazos says:

    Thanks for doing the work and spreading the good word, Geoff. I do a lot of volunteer work — not at the level you are working, but any form of volunteerism is good — and it’s very gratifying and much needed in the world so kudos to you. Happy New Year.
    (also, didn’t get a chance to look at your interview Q’s but will do that soon!)

    Like

  11. Reblogged this on Gary A Wilson's Stories in a Dime of Time and commented:
    Hi all. I have this friend across the pond. He normally writes riot-funny stuff but this short essay is not at all his normal product. It’s not funny (much anyway) not preachy, not political or religious, not inspiration or convicting – it’s just right. You really should give it a quick 2-3 minute read as he handles this topic so much better than I could have.

    Cheers and well done Geoff!

    Like

  12. Norah says:

    Geoff, if I haven’t already told you how amazing you are, I’m telling you now. You are amazing. The world needs more amazing people like you.

    Like

  13. Norah says:

    Reblogged this on Norah Colvin and commented:
    A serious story from a writer who specialises in humour – it will both warm your heart and inspire you.

    Like

  14. Lovely moving post, Geoff. Glad you were able to persist and help this man.

    Like

  15. A delightful post, Geoff. I have always believed that individuals should do the best they can to assist others regardless how big or small the help we offer is. Something is better than nothing. In Africa, the poverty is enormous and endless. Some traffic lights have up to twenty beggars and hustlers and we have to be careful of crime here too. I support six beggars as I like to give the same people regularly. It makes me feel as if it makes more of a difference. I also give through the Church and the charity raffle cakes I make. It is a little but it helps. Happy new year.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. calmkate says:

    Fortunately here in oz many charities do this on a weekly basis! Meaning that homeless people can usually get a meal most days and a shower, washing or change of clothing weekly. Eye contact, a smile and a brief chat sees them stand taller … they are well worth knowing!

    Like

    • TanGental says:

      Ah I didn’t mean to suggest there were no services for the rest of the year. Several charities provided food and advice, others clothing and similar facilities. Crisis itself runs cafes which give training to bring the homeless into the world of work again with many courses. But necessarily the provision is both more limited and fragmented than the Christmas operation which is huge. I work at a homeless shelter each week which provides a simple breakfast , some emergency accommodation and advice on housing and benefits but it is merely scratching the surface sadly., esp currently when tough economic times are generating a greater need than ever before.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Jennie says:

    Bravo, Geoff!! It feels so good to help others, and to those you help it means the world. Yes, may we look at all people as people, and never prejudge, because we really don’t know. Wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Beautiful post, Geoff and kudos to you for everything you do. There’s such a stigma surrounding homelessness – we used to organise a collection and take a lot of stuff from the school that I worked at to the homeless shelter every year, and the stories that you would hear are similar – good people who are down on their luck… something to keep in mind next time I pass somebody in the street. Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

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