2016 marked the fifth time I have volunteered for Crisis at Christmas. I thought I’d look back at the times I’ve volunteered for them, and my motivations for doing so.
2012 was an interesting year for me – I graduated from university, spending the summer at my mum’s after quitting my job to concentrate on finishing the dissertation. Heading back to London to move in to my boyfriend’s new flat in Crystal Palace, the first thing I did was volunteer at the Paralympics. That experience, and the sheer enjoyment of meeting so many fellow volunteers, cemented a decision that had been brewing in my mind for a long time.
Crisis at Christmas was something I’d heard about, but it wasn’t until I signed up for my first year with them that I realised the scale of the operation. The online form I completed showed a huge number of volunteer positions they needed to fill. In 2016 Crisis took on 10,000 volunteers for their London operations alone and in recent years they have expanded to several other UK cities including Newcastle, Birmingham, and Edinburgh. Homeless guests are able to access hot showers and meals, as well as somewhere to sleep and services such as legal advice, medical checks, and social activities. All of this is provided by donations and volunteers.
I decided that as I hold a passenger-carrying vehicle licence (I can drive a bus), I would be most useful to Crisis in their transport team, and so December 8 2012 saw me arriving at the warehouse in Bermondsey to complete my MIDAS training. This is a qualification that Crisis are able to provide to some of their drivers. It took a day of learning and ensures that the driver of a minibus is confident in navigation and in keeping their passengers safe and comfortable.
This out of the way, it was a couple of weeks before I started my first ever shift, on Christmas Eve. I’d signed up to do seven days in a row – working the afternoon shifts of about eight hours each. Needless to say, I was exhausted at the end of the week! Since then I’ve made sure to give myself a couple of days off.
I’ve found that every shift I do with Crisis at Christmas brings something different. The transport team get to visit all the centres and so within one shift I can be listening to karaoke, learning about the life of a guest, dealing with a medical emergency and helping to deliver essential supplies. Although a lot of the time as a driver can be spent waiting for a job to do, it was great to chat with my fellow volunteers and learn about their motivations for helping out at Crisis. I soon learned that many volunteers are themselves quite lonely at Christmas, and so Crisis provides a good way to meet up with friends from the year before. Some people have been volunteering at Crisis for many years, and others are former guests of the service.
One thing that has struck me is the generosity of those volunteers. One doctor I met had travelled over from Germany to volunteer with the medical team. Another volunteer took time out of his own Christmas day to pick me up and make sure I got to my shift on time – on the back of his motorbike! One chap was enduring relentless ribbing from his City hedge fund colleagues about his ‘Mother Theresa’ commitment to Crisis. Nobody I spoke to regretted making the decision to give their time and expertise to help out.
The guests themselves are also wonderful to meet – and they serve as a good reminder that most of us could find ourselves in similar circumstances because many of them are victims of unfortunate events such as job losses or traumatic experiences. Some people have been married with children, had jobs and owned homes. Behaviour can be challenging, but for the most part this is rare. Guests are made to feel welcome and given respect – something missing from their lives throughout much of the year.
It is of course possible to assist without giving up any time – several of my friends and family donate each year to the Crisis at Christmas appeal, giving a small sum that will pay for a guest to be able to have a hot meal.
As for the rest of the year – Crisis run several education, employment and training centres called Skylights. These give homeless people the opportunity to learn new skills for free, to gain certification and experience that will help them into work and assistance with finding stable accommodation.
Since 2010, homelessness has been rising after years of decline. This includes those who are street homeless, those in temporary hostels, and those relying on the goodwill of friends or family. Crisis carries out research on top of its other work to help the government to address this problem.
I love the work that Crisis do, and, although it is sad that thousands of people need the help that Crisis offers, it is wonderful that so many volunteers are willing to give up their time to assist them when other services have not addressed their needs.