Passing by the bottom end of Charing Cross Road yesterday, round the side of the National Portrait Gallery and the back of the National Gallery we saw the usual groups lying in the doorways and in the nooks and crannies where they shelter from the rain. They will sleep there all year. Cue Dickens (sort of):
London. January. Wind. Rain. Etc
A brief excursion takes me back to Jock Lafferty, the legendary Scotsman-with-an-Irish-name who taught us English all those years back, reading us the opening of Bleak House, with the solemn warning that Dickens can break all the rules of syntax because – and only because – he is Dickens. We were not Dickens, and should beware of thinking of ourselves as such. It’s taken me over fifty years to try writing one word sentences – and still I hear that robust Scottish voice in my ear.
But the scene around the corners of Trafalgar Square was more reminiscent of King Lear, battered by the storm, stripped for the first time of royal comforts and newly discovering what it means to be an ordinary person:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your household heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
Just last week there will have been a rising tension in a number of locations around London. It happens when the Crisis shelters are about to close for another year, sending hundreds of homeless men and women back onto the streets. Crisis, if you don’t know, is a wonderful charity which provides shelters over the Christmas period for single homeless people who are referred by social agencies. For the duration they get a warm, dry place to sleep, three square meals a day with as many helpings as they can manage, fresh clothes, haircuts, massage, chiropody, medical care, dental treatment and advice on housing, training and education.
The charity started its Crisis at Christmas initiative in 1971, and I’ve had a soft spot for it since doing some carol singing around Marble Arch to run funds in its early years. The shelters are run by volunteers led by some full time staff whose approach is as near as I’ve ever come to the phrase ‘true love’. They know their guests and their needs, can handle the tensions (and especially the rising temperature during those last couple of days) and who simply give and go on giving, in a practical and matter of fact way – exactly what is needed. They walk not just the second mile, but the third and fourth as well – as much as it takes.
When I volunteered there a couple of years back (I could have done this much more in my life) I received, as you would expect, much more than I gave. For example:
- the charity does not concern itself with why its guests are homeless – though for many of them the causes must have been avoidable: judgement is not their business
- most of the guests just need you to listen to them for a while – and to be nice: for some, the shelter is the only time this happens for them
- it’s inspiring when a guest comes back as a volunteer in a later year – and some do: the whole ambience of care and support enhances their confidence and determination
- cleaning the toilets does not make you Mother Teresa – but it does give you a certain new perspective on the world: some meetings I’ve attended have been worse
- it’s a wonder to see the volunteer chefs conjuring wholesome meals out of the disparate ingredients donated by suppliers – in one case, a gigantic vacuum pack of peeled garlic cloves – like Ready, Steady, Cook on a giant scale
- it’s even more of a wonder to see people, who came in completely incapable of digesting a full meal, coming back for seconds and thirds a few days later: almost all make some progress.
And so on. Why am I writing this now, when the shelters have already closed? Well, the campaign towards Christmas 2016 is already under way but Crisis also run advice centres in a number of cities all year round. They accept donations at any time!
Even better, they are always happy to receive enquiries about volunteering, and you don’t need special qualifications apart from the willingness to give time and effort. So if you’re searching for a New Year Resolution, and feel you can plan in a day (or night) over the Christmas period next year, then why not go to their website and have a look around? Maybe I’ll see you there.