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It was coming up to Christmas 2007 and I was living on the streets of London. I had never heard of Crisis at Christmas before and I honestly did not know what I would be doing; I’d thought about going to Connections [a city centre day centre] but, frankly, I didn’t even know if it would be open.
As luck would have it, a fellow rough sleeper told me about Crisis and asked me to go with him and a few others. One thing I have observed many times is how helpful homeless people are to each other.
In those days, you had to go to a central place to register where you wanted to go. On the advice of my friend, I asked for the quiet shelter so that I and the people I had come with would be together. To be honest, I soon nicknamed it “the not-so-quiet shelter”, but it was somewhere warm to go where I felt safe.
And that was not all. There were three meals a day (which after time on the streets felt like luxury!), plus as much tea or coffee and snacks as you wanted. One of my friends inhabited the TV room for the whole period. We were looked after like royalty.
The list of activities on offer was endless – it was a full-on week. I took part in the drama group and ended up running it. I also contributed to the newsletter. Reading it was a revelation. I remember in one letter published there a person writing that he had finally found a place and had only come to Crisis because he was lonely.
There was always something on, and on top of that a room with computers so people could always do their emails or watch YouTube. Some days entertainers would come come in. You could also get your hair cut or a shave, and there was an advice room for people who needed it.
It was there that I was directed to an organisation, which would help me get off the street. I never thought that would happen.
Like anything, it wasn’t perfect. One thing I remember finding annoying was the army of volunteers who often stood around with nothing to do. When you came to a door, one of them would rush to open it for you. As I joked to them at the time, after a week of that, there was a risk I’d forget how to do it myself – I might need some training.
It is now 2016, and for the last four years I have been a volunteer – an ambassador for Crisis Skylight. The ambassadors’ duties are two-fold. They speak to the homeless people who attend and try to encourage them to join Skylight, and they also go around and help in the survey that has been drawn up by Crisis. This is to get feedback to see what works and what doesn't. After the first time, I became a key ambassador, which means I also support other ambassadors.
I enjoy meeting people and I have no problem telling people I am a former rough sleeper. They know I understand the situation they are facing, and it creates trust. I feel that my experience helps me to contribute something. I often see people I recognise from my time in the streets walk through the door, and I realise that they are still there. I’ve been lucky.
I also enjoy talking to the volunteers – I’m always interested in what motivates them. As a writer and a human being, I have this curiosity about people.
What has changed? One difference is that the not-so-quiet centre no longer exists. There are still places for people to sleep, but that has been cut down. The amenities are just as varied as before and the volunteers are great and very friendly. Oh, and they don’t open the doors anymore.
I would recommend it to anyone on the street. You will be treated well. Finally, if you see me say hello. I’ll be the one letting you open the door for yourself.
At Crisis at Christmas London you can enjoy hot food and discover fun activities. You can have a free haircut, health care and specialist advice, learn new skills, be entertained and much, much more.
Day centres will open at 12noon on Friday, 23 December and will close at 9pm on Thursday, 29 December. Opening hours between these times are 9am–9pm. They have some residential centres for people who have nowhere to sleep or need specialist help. Please don’t take up a bed unless you really need it: someone else may need it desperately.
To make Crisis at Christmas safe and enjoyable for everyone, they don’t allow drugs, alcohol, weapons, smoking or pets. Violence will not be tolerated.
1. North London Day Centre, Westminster Kingsway College, 211 Grays Inn Rd, WC1X 8RA
2. West London Day Centre, Kensington Aldridge Academy, 1 Silchester Rd, W10 6EX
3. South London Day Centre, City of London Academy, Lynton, Rd SE1 5LA
4. East London Day Centre, The City Academy, Hackney, Homerton Row, E9 6EA
5. South East London Day Centre, Lewisham College Deptford Campus, 2 Deptford Church St, SE8 4RZ
There are mini buses and pick-up points around London starting at 11am on 23 Dec, with the last pick-up at 3pm. The following days, pick-ups will run from 9am until noon. You should not need to wait more than one hour. Info on routes is available from Crisis.
Crisis at Christmas Edinburgh provides good company, food, entertainment, art and other creative activities, there’ll be, hairdressing, massage and foot care services on offer. You can also find out how Crisis can help you all year round. Crisis at Christmas is free and open to homeless people aged 18 and over: please note it is a drink and drug free event. The day centre is open on 25 and 26 December, 8am to 8pm.
Southside Community Centre, 117 Nicolson Street, EH8 9ER
Free transport: a pick-up service will run from the bottom of Leith Walk, 8–10am and midday–2pm on both days. It will take you straight to the venue. To find out about getting to the venue, please call 0131 209 7731.