Josh's story. Married in the morning, volunteering in the afternoon.
This story was reported on by Crisis Members who have experienced homelessness themselves, as part of a journalist training opportunity.
Growing up Christmas was always a very family orientated time. It was a happy time of year with all my immediate family and friends. The magic dissipates a bit as you get older, but you also start to realise how fortunate you are to have that experience.
Six years ago, I was living in London and started working for a start up in education technology. It’s a social learning platform with a really positive mission getting kids involved in a global community to learn English. Children from privileged backgrounds connecting with under privileged kids. I usually left London to go home at Christmas, but I had stayed that year and was looking at a few different volunteering opportunities. It was something I’d been meaning to do for ages, and initially I was looking at mentoring kids of disadvantaged backgrounds, but then Crisis came to my attention.
I was definitely aware of the homelessness problem. I witnessed it getting worse in every part of London, but I’d only had basic interactions with homeless people before. Where I live on the high street there’s an alarming number of rough sleepers. I’ve got to know some of them in a superficial way but when you’re confronted with it everyday, just walking past them began to sit very uncomfortably with me. Sometimes you get to know them a bit and realise there’s a whole range of reasons why people have hit hard times, but at the end of the day I was still going to my comfortable flat after speaking with them. Crisis at Christmas felt like a gateway to understand it better and help more.
I didn’t know what to expect really when I first started. I began in a day centre in west London and my first impressions were just what an amazing team the Crisis volunteers were. I was so impressed. I also didn’t realise how many people did this and for how many years. The most valuable services we provide for our guests depends for each individual. Some people simply want to come and catch up on sleep. You can’t function properly when you’re on the street. Just getting your head down for a week is invaluable, but a lot of the role is also encouraging guests to engage with services like doctors, dentists, and housing advise. Many of the guests really rely on that support at Christmas, because they can’t access it at other times of the year, but one of the most important things is just connecting with people. Breaking down those barriers, having a chat and interacting with people. It’s such a welcoming and healthy environment where people can just relax.
It’s my fifth-year volunteering now, and last year I’d committed to do my shifts in October, but my girlfriend and I had also planned a trip to Mexico the second half of Christmas. We wanted to get married there as well but logistically it wasn’t possible, so we looked at our local registry office. The only date left was the day before we went on holiday, and also the last day I had an afternoon shift at Crisis at Christmas. I didn’t want to let them down, so we decided to go for it. We got married in the morning, had a really nice lunch then I went to do my shift in the afternoon. We just turned our holiday to Mexico into our honeymoon. It was quite a spontaneous decision, but all the dates just seemed to align. My girlfriend has volunteered before so understood. It’s not the traditional route but that’s not us anyway. I’ve been to so many weddings that felt so formulaic. This felt more like us. It was amazing. All the volunteers and the shift leaders made a banner that said, ‘Just Married’ and we all had a drink to celebrate after the shift.
I know it sounds obvious, but volunteering for Crisis at Christmas gives you perspective on what’s most important in life. It stays with you. We’re so increasingly busy the rest of the year, and Christmas is the main time when families get together and connect, or re-connect again. Being at Crisis during that period definitely makes you count your blessings. But it’s not all guilt and sadness. Homeless people at the centres are in a great environment and getting support. There’s an atmosphere of optimism and positivity which gives you hope. It’s upsetting on one level but also really uplifting.
It’s also an amazing way of mixing people who wouldn’t really interact with each other. I can’t think of any other place throughout the year with so much diversity. There’s a huge variety of people with all different kinds of stories. You really feel part of something. I can’t think of anything else that compares with it. You don’t tap into that in your daily life. Christmas is a great opportunity to tap into feelings of goodwill to help other people, and I think a lot of people want to hold onto those feelings all year around. In all the conversations I have at Christmas, people really do want to tackle this crisis, but what we’ve been doing to help homeless people so far is clearly not enough. We’re failing as a society. People are not getting the help they need. The government needs to take it much more seriously at a higher level, but unlike other countries we also have amazing charities like Crisis who actually have a plan to end homelessness. Of all societies problems this is one that can really be solved, and together we definitely can.
Josh, Key Volunteer, Crisis at Christmas, London.
By sharing stories we can change attitudes and build a movement for permanent, positive change. Stand against homelessness and help us end it for good.