A message from our Head of Christmas

With winter fast approaching, we have already begun preparing our services so everyone receives the Christmas they deserve and starts their journey towards ending their homelessness.

Ian Richards, Head of Christmas, looks back at Christmas 2020 and what to expect this year.

What was it like to run the Christmas services last year?

Due to the pandemic we were restricted in everything we did. We weren't able to run day centres so we had to get individual en-suite accommodation for guests. We learned quickly how beneficial this was to have people in their own accommodation.

I expect it to be busy this year, with more people out on the streets. Last year, the pandemic gave us an opportunity to spend time with guests and really get to talk to them.

“One thing I take away from this is how great our volunteers are”

We ran the call centre for the first time last year and this has now become a staple part of the service. One thing I take away from that is how great our volunteers are. They had to take a lot of difficult calls, I heard some horrific stuff. What came out of that experience was hearing exactly how bad things are.

What can people donate to the warehouses or how can they support in the lead up to Christmas?

The essentials are new clothing and entertainment items like craft materials, items which are useful for people who are in the hotels. Imagine if you were sitting in a hotel room, what would you want to pass your time? We do have a lot of digital assets such as handsets donated and all the hotels have unlimited Wi-Fi and the hotels have got TVs in their rooms, but for those that haven't we supply laptops and devices.

Look out for our asks on the website; as we get nearer the time, members will advise us with what they think would be useful for guests. For example, last year with the phone chargers and cables- that came off the back of member suggestions.

Volunteers play a key part in our service, what does volunteering at Christmas look like this year?

Compared to normal, it will be considerably less. We're looking at 3000 volunteers this year compared to 11,000 pre-Covid, but this is a lot more than Christmas 2020. Our supporters and volunteers make Christmas what it is.

What did you learn from Christmas 2020 and how are you adapting services this year in line with these learnings?

We learnt last year about the importance of how we keep in touch with those people at the end of Christmas. We've got two weeks with them so the Case Management Team can start working with people as soon as they come to us- within the first week or first few days.

“Once they settle down their mindset changes so much, they feel relaxed and they're ready to sit down and chat and I think the fact that we're open for two weeks, which is an extra six days than we used to do, it gives us a good bit of time to understand their needs and start that process of support straight away.”

We're sticking with the accommodation model from last year. Engagement was phenomenal, we managed to speak to every one of our guests in a meaningful way and ask them about their housing. We are opening day centres alongside hotel accommodation for people on their own or people who can’t afford heating or a meal.

“Because they had their own room and their own safety, and because the pandemic forced us into delivering food to their rooms, it meant that three times a day we were having meaningful contact with people.”

The old model was far busier. Once someone had been advised, trying to find them again later on was hard work and it did not happen straight away.

“We talk about dignity being one of our main values and I've been doing this long enough to know the difference in volunteers’ approaches and attitudes to us and it was virtually 100% positive about what we were doing last year.”

How important is our digital offer at this time of year?

The devices were very useful, especially as it meant people could access the wellbeing and entertainment apps.

What are the kind of challenges we're facing this year that we didn't face last year?

“I think we learned so much last year that I feel confident about this year.”

We are prepared for a busy Christmas! If the government decides we’ll have a fourth lockdown then unfortunately we’ll have to reduce volunteer numbers. But we would still be able to have the hotel accommodation and we’ll still be able to do a really warm service for our guests. Hopefully next year we will be back to normal. If that is the case, my team need to work hard to get the cost of accommodation down.

What will Christmas look like this year?

It will be very similar to what we did last year but we’ll hopefully be able to open up more space in the hotels to use the restaurants, communal spaces and public areas that they have, so people won't be locked away in their rooms, they can go down to nice restaurants and eat together, or they can go to open spaces to access our advice, activities and entertainment. The day centres will operate in a similar way as well.

What health services are we providing this year?

“We will have a full health service this year and will be using the same COVID precautions as the year before and adapt according to what the government advises.”

We have everything in place for a full pandemic Christmas so we can adjust accordingly, we've still got lots of kit and will be supplying that for all our volunteers along with instruction and training where needed.

How are we working with the local authorities and other partners?

Nearer to Christmas, we’ll be seeking advice from Pathway on how they think we should operate regarding contact between volunteers and guests, particularly in our day centres, because that's a new concept for us regarding government Covid restrictions. We also have good contact with the Greater London Authority and we're keeping one another in the loop.

What would you say to our supporters ahead of this Christmas?

"I'd just like to thank all our supporters for all they did for us last year under what were really weird and challenging circumstances."

We wouldn't have been able to do the things we did without them. I think a lot of people thought Christmas won't happen this year because it was just so uncertain and challenging out there but knowing that we had that support from donors and everyone else, it made it a lot easier for us to think yeah we can do it.