Crisis at Christmas

August 1, 2010
Crisis Volunteers

– click on the image to view the full gallery –

During Christmas 2006, buy over four thousand people volunteered for the homeless charity ‘Crisis’ and helped care for over 1000 guests in one of seven temporary shelters dotted around central London. The guests, some of the most vulnerable members of our community, find sanctuary, friendship and access to a wide variety of resources that are hard to find at other times of the year. The volunteers come from all walks of life, and vary from the curious first-timer, to the ten-year veteran for whom Christmas now means working the night shift in a smoke-filled shelter.

Crisis Open Christmas runs for a week, and by the last days it is only the volunteers’ white name badges that distinguishes many of them from the guests. Over the previous days the guests have received haircuts, new clothes and hearty meals. The volunteers meantime have worked long hours and look dishevelled and weary.

More experienced volunteers will have a red dot added to their badge. This means they are a ‘key volunteer’ and might spend their shift running an area of the shelter. Maybe the café, a sleeping bay, or the front gate where guests enter and exit and have the four rules of Crisis Open Christmas clearly explained to them: No drugs; No drink; No weapons; No violence.

Overseeing shelters are the most experience volunteers that wear green name badges, and it’s their ability to lead, manage and dispense deft touches of exemplary people skills makes the whole thing work.

Many of the volunteers – particularly the first-time volunteers – have experienced a period of change or crisis in their own personal life. That’s the double benefit of Crisis – by giving their time, the volunteers receive a rewarding experience as well as caring for the guests. So you could say Crisis Open Christmas isn’t about homelessness as much as loneliness. Everyone is there for each other.

On the final morning, directly across the street from the famous Lloyds of London Building, the guests at the Leadenhall Street shelter walked outside bleary-eyed and temporarily disorientated. The passers-by greeted them with surprised stares as they made their way to the office. It would be easy to become cynical watching the ‘haves’ trundle past the ‘have-nots’. But on the longest nights of the year, when the guests needed caring for the most, there were hundreds of people who put on their overcoats, tied up their boots, and made sure they were where they were needed. To lend a helping hand and a listening ear.

The following photographs and interviews with the Crisis volunteers took place after the last night shift ended. It’s an emotionally charged time when the stresses and strains of the week are washed away with the help of a few pints. There is a common bond between the volunteers. However, the satisfaction of a job well done is inevitably tempered by the knowledge that the guests, meanwhile, are returning to whatever they left before Christmas.