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 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 10:33 GMT
'Why I give up my Christmas'
Volunteer with guest, Crisis photo
A Crisis volunteer talks to a guest at the shelter
This Christmas will be IT manager Stuart Cashmore's fourth helping out at the Crisis Open Christmas shelter for the homeless. Here, he explains why volunteering makes his holiday that much more special.

Working at the shelter is something I look forward to with very mixed feelings.

Stuart Cashmore
"I do four shifts in the week the shelter is open"
There are guests I know from previous years and it's lovely to see them, it's like meeting an old friend again. But on the other hand, they are still in a situation where they need Crisis.

But that can be positive in its way. One chap I got to know on my first year was in a bad way - he had an alcohol problem and was street living. The following year, he'd been on a detox programme and had got place in a hostel. And when I saw him last Christmas, he was about to move into a flat and had landed a job.

So I'm hoping not to see him this year, for all the right reasons.

I'm one of the general volunteers who help with menial tasks such as serving meals and clearing up the mess afterwards.

Homeless man, Crisis photo
Crisis has five shelters in London
Main shelter - up to 600 people during day and half that at night
Women's shelter - 120 women with female volunteers
Quiet shelter - for those who don't want hurly-burly of main centre
Drinkers' shelter - 150 people, many physically dependent on alcohol
Deptford day centre
But probably the most important thing we can do is to give the guests our time to talk - and more importantly, listen to them. These are people who for 51 weeks of the year are wallpaper - most people choose not to see them. It's a tremendous boost to their self-esteem to be listened to, to be talked to like a friend.

My Christmas Day typically starts at 7.30am with a cup of tea in the volunteers' area and then I help serve breakfast. It's always a full cooked breakfast - porridge, bacon and egg and tomato, toast, and as much tea and coffee as the guest wants. We make sure everyone gets a chance to go around at least once, and there are seconds and thirds until it runs out.

I usually supervise the showers for a couple of hours and then help out on the clothing queue - many just aren't dressed for the cold.

Big Issue seller
For many, the homeless are virtually invisible
Two Christmases ago, a young lad turned up early in the morning. He had been sheltering in an abandoned building in east London and hadn't eaten for five days - he was very new to being homeless so didn't know the help available.

He had found out about us late on Boxing Day and walked through the night to get to us. He had trainers that were more hole than shoe, no socks, a pair of torn thin trousers, a T-shirt and a jumper.

Just as I was going off shift, somebody came up to me, did a twirl and said 'isn't this great'. I didn't recognise him at first. He'd had a couple of hot meals, a shower, a haircut and some decent clothes and shoes. He really was a new man, a total transformation from the poor shivering lad who came in that morning.

'It could be us'

I've always wanted to be involved in the Crisis Open Christmas. Whatever we may like to think, this is a wealthy country and it just seems an affront to me that we cannot afford to make proper provisions and people have to be homeless.

Volunteer and guest, Crisis photo
Guests can chat, play board games or just sleep
Then in 1999 my own personal circumstances changed, which meant that I wasn't tied to a family Christmas anymore. I now make volunteering part of my Christmas planning year after year.

I had always thought there was some huge gulf between homeless people and the rest of society, and what volunteering has taught me is that it's a very narrow gap. All it takes is one or two adverse events at a time when you're not able to cope for some reason, or your normal support network can't help, and it could be any of us.

Volunteering has made me grateful for what I've got - very grateful.

Some of your comments so far:

I too used to work with Crisis and had some of my best Christmases ever with them. But please remember, people need helping all year round, not just at Christmas.
Richard, UK

I helped out at the Dean Street car park drop-in Centre on Monday nights whilst a student in Newcastle, England, and had great fun with the homeless and the needy. 8 years since I left, I still think of the people who came and those who helped. A few hours a week can make such a difference to them and to you.
Alex Tate, Australia

Here in San Francisco we have an estimated 18,000 homeless people. My colleague and I work 6 evenings a week with young homeless who won't even go to a shelter, giving them blankets and toiletries - and also doing needle exchange (legal in SF only) and condoms since so many are into drugs and sex for money. May God bless all who see homeless people as the individuals they are - and therefore much like anyone else in an increasingly desperate world.
Stephen Bartlett-Re, US

What a brilliant article. It reflects exactly how I feel and although I am nervous about it, I am helping out in a San Francisco homeless shelter on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Trevor, USA/UK

On Christmas Day I'll be broadcasting on a hospital radio station from the children's wards. We play games with the kids, give them little gifts, Santa comes to call and we play the music they want to hear. It's so rewarding to do something for those who can't be at home and in familiar surroundings at Christmas time.
Claire Knight, London, UK

I also volunteered to help in a shelter in Bristol as my family has grown and I wanted to do something worthwhile. I applied for 4-5 shifts and got one for the clearing up after Xmas. Whilst I have no objection to clearing up, I would have liked to help with the setting up and actually mixing with the people. I can accept that regulars are probably chosen first, but it seems short-sighted to turn down people who might eventually replace them.
Christine Sims, UK

Real Time gives people a chance to tell their own stories in their own words. If you've got something to say, click here.

  Stuart Cashmore
on his fondest memory of the Crisis Open Christmas

Talking PointFORUM
Homeless person Homeless at Christmas
You asked Vindy Bains at CRISIS

See also:

24 Dec 01 | Scotland
11 Dec 02 | UK
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