Volunteering at Crisis at Christmas
This Christmas, I passed up my usual family visits and lazy days flicking through the ‘so bad it’s good’ TV offerings to volunteer at one of Crisis’ Christmas centres in London. I was just one of thousands of volunteers who pitched in to help 4,600 guests have a Christmas away from the harsh realities of homelessness – our centres provide everything from hot meals and shelter to football tournaments, acting workshops, knitting, and karaoke. Crucially, they also provide people with the advice and tools they need to move on from homelessness.
I was volunteering in the advice team. And, although it was my second year volunteering as an advisor, I was still nervous when I arrived for my first shift at the South London school that had been transformed into a temporary home for hundreds of guests for a week. Due to my “day job” in Crisis’ policy team, I’m acutely aware all year round of the devastating impact homelessness has on people’s lives, but nothing really prepares you for the realities of sitting down with someone who’s spent the previous weeks and months sleeping in the freezing cold, and who’s looking to you to help them find a way out.
Crisis ran 15 Christmas centres across Britain last month, and all of them had an advice service where guests could get information and support in terms of housing, immigration, employment, benefits, and other issues. For the volunteers in these teams, this can involve helping guests to replace stolen documents that they need to access housing and employment, get the support they’re entitled to from their local council, and access emergency accommodation so that they have somewhere to stay after Crisis at Christmas. Often the most important thing we can do is help connect people into year-round services that can help them end their homelessness for good.
By the end of my first shift, I was happy that we’d managed to secure places at winter night shelters for several guests, so they wouldn’t have to return to rough sleeping after our Christmas centre closed. These guests included several men nearing retirement age who were managing multiple health conditions, as well as others who were working but still couldn’t afford to rent privately. We also made appointments for guests with their local council’s Housing Options teams, to ensure that they could access support under the Homelessness Reduction Act, and we made sure people knew how to access Crisis’ year-round services.
After Christmas, lots of people asked if I’d enjoyed volunteering. I loved having the chance to chat with guests and hear their stories, and every small but significant step we helped someone take towards ending their homelessness felt like a mini victory. But I also found it a hugely sobering experience and I came away feeling more than a little angry.
The fact is most guests should never have to come to Crisis’ Christmas centres at all. For so many of the people we met, too many opportunities had been missed to prevent them from becoming homeless. In some cases, there had been a failure to ensure that someone could access the benefits they needed to pay their rent. In others, there was a dire lack of support for people who needed to find settled accommodation after being released from prison.
The best way to tackle homelessness is to prevent it happening in the first place. After volunteering over Christmas, I’ve come back to my day job with a renewed determination to make sure 2019 is the year we make that a reality.
The Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force last spring, is a big step in the right direction. It should ensure that people who are at risk of homelessness are able to access support in good time – local authorities now have a duty to step in and help people who are at risk of becoming homeless within 56 days (previously it was only 28 days). But this must be part of a wider prevention strategy that addresses the structural drivers of homelessness, including:
- Building the 90,000 new social homes that England needs every year for the next 15 years.
- Addressing the growing gap between housing benefit and private rents. The government’s upcoming spending review is an important opportunity to address this.
- Ensuring that everyone can access support to prevent or relieve homelessness - no one should be excluded on the basis of their country of origin or immigration status.
- A duty on every government department to ensure that public bodies such as hospitals, prisons and schools have to take steps to help prevent and relieve homelessness.
Until this happens, Crisis will keep working year-round to campaign for the changes needed to end homelessness for good. We need Everybody In to make that happen – which is why we’re asking people across the country to get involved and pledge their support to stand against homelessness today.
Having seen first-hand the devastation that homelessness causes – and the sheer will that so many have to end it – I know that this can and must be done.
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