A generation of atheists may associate Christmas with nothing more than splurging money on unsuitable gifts, but the homeless charity Crisis’s Christmas centres show a more human vision of the season of generosity.
Since 1971 the charity has been running day centres which provide food, warmth, activities and camaraderie for a week during the festive period. A Christmas meal is provided on Christmas day and throughout the rest of the time, the guests are entertained by performers, given haircuts in the salon and generally offered a holiday to a whole new world of pampering and stigma-free socialising.
Medical volunteers from St. Thomas’s and the British Red Cross are also on hand to provide check ups not readily available to those without a permanent address.
Kieran Smith, a volunteer for the British Red Cross, who will be spending his fourth year at the Crisis centre in Finsbury Park, said: ‘The guests have the same medical problems as everyone else, like breathing and heart trouble. There is a bit more mental illness and they do benefit more from attention to their concerns.’
‘It is a very humanising experience and shows people up as individuals. You make a lot of friends and gain personal satisfaction.’
A total of 8,000 volunteers are involved in working across nine centres (five of which are by referral only), some are from specialist professions and others are former guests themselves. Robert Gridley, 51, who used Crisis last year was given a place in a hostel in October 2008 and two months on is wearing a name badge and mucking in like the rest of the volunteers.
Of his previous experiences he said: ‘On the streets whether it’s Christmas or any other time it’s horrible. Many people get beaten up or just generally abused. In here it’s nice. You’re somewhere warm and get three meals a day – you don’t eat very well on the streets. [Here] you meet friends and get treated like a human.’
George Westren, whose big open face and shy Devonshire accent melt away the stereotype of rough tramps sitting in boxes, is another who has crossed the homeless/volunteer divide.
Originally a labourer from the village of Ilfrascombe in Devon, George spent 17 years on the streets battling an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. ‘I was afraid of everybody and that’s why I liked pills because they gave me a false sense of security,’ says the man whose passion for OP Art has led to being part of a current exhibition at Camden’s the Parkway.
Humanity is the name of the game here at Crisis. Whether it’s the permanent staff hoping that a stay in the centre will lead to ongoing support and progress for their many guests, or the living proof that people can withstand a lack of secure accommodation without turning into savages, the spirit of concern makes us a look even better than a novelty Santa hat.
The four drop-in Day centres are to be found at:
Islington Arts and Media School, Turle Road, Finsbury Park, N4 3LS
Newham College, Stratford Campus, Govier Close, E15 4HT
Broadway Market (off Goldhawk Road), Shepherds Bush, W12 8EZ
Speedwell Street, Deptford, SE8 4AT
For more information visit http://www.crisis.org.uk/page.builder/centres_2008.html
To find out about volunteering visit: