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.
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.