‘The roughest time of year for some’

For a homeless person, Christmas is a trial – but charities and churches are helping

This article was first published in The Times on December 19 2014.

Chris Ubsdell (Photo: Mark Greaves)

Chris Ubsdell (Photo: Mark Greaves)

Last December Kerrie was sleeping in a stairwell in south London. She was freezing, with only a coat to keep her warm, until an elderly woman came and placed a quilt on top of her. “I didn’t mean to wake you up,” the woman said. She came back later with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. On Christmas Day she brought a proper meal, with slices of turkey and pigs in blankets and a box of Quality Street.

Christmas is the hardest time of year for a homeless person. If you are lucky, you find yourself a place in a hostel before winter sets in. Failing that, you may be able to find emergency shelter in a church. If you are still sleeping rough on December 23, you can sign up for a bed with Crisis at Christmas, run by the charity Crisis, which operates for eight days over the Christmas period.

Kerrie, who is in her early 30s, was not so fortunate. She says she tried to sign up to Crisis, but her dog, a Staffordshire terrier with a black eye called Nibbles, made it more difficult, as only one out of ten of the Crisis at Christmas centres is open to pets.

For those homeless people who do sign up, though, Crisis at Christmas is a happy break from the grind of street life. It provides food, hot showers, the chance of having a haircut or seeing a doctor or dentist, and even activities such as five-a-side football, art classes and table tennis.

Chris Ubsdell, who stayed with Crisis last year, describes it as like a Butlins holiday camp or a music festival. Having the basics covered means “you don’t have to worry about things for a week”. Simple things like shower gel, a razor and a towel are provided too, he says, adding that for a homeless person a hot shower alone “is like being in Heaven”.

Crisis at Christmas is entirely run by volunteers — this year there will be 9,000 of them working at ten sites across London, and services will be offered in Newcastle and Edinburgh too, but for a shorter period. Siobhan Sheridan has volunteered for the past seven years. She says she could not think of another way to spend Christmas: “It’s a combination of doing something that feels genuinely important and meeting wonderful people.”

The other options if you are homeless are night shelters, where you sleep in a dormitory or communal area, or hostels, which provide more permanent accommodation, usually for a year or two. The largest emergency shelter is run by West London Churches Homeless Concern, which provides 70 beds at different churches each day of the week throughout the winter. This year the shelter has been full, with extra people queueing for admission each night. Judith Roberts, who has volunteered with the charity for the past 13 years, says that the homeless guests are treated the same as “friends coming round for dinner”. She explains that she is driven by the idea that if she were made homeless she would want “to go somewhere people treated you with respect and dignity”.

For shelters and hostels the Christmas period, enshrined as it is as a hallowed time for family, is a huge challenge — and for many homeless people it is merely a reminder of the friends or family they have lost. Chris Deacon, manager of a Thames Reach hostel in Vauxhall, south London, says that the “rollercoaster of emotions” starts as early as November.

Read the rest of the article here.