After the Christmas, the crisis. Or Crisis. I’ve been helping out at the Harris Academy Bermondsey, where volunteers have transformed a school into a week-long refuge for homeless people.
Crisis at Christmas is a brilliant idea that started 50 years as a publicity stunt. It’s been going every year since and thousands of homeless guests come through the doors for the good food, companionship and advice offered by more than 11,000 volunteers across 13 sites in London and beyond.
My job mostly consists of keeping the place tidy: picking rubbish in the surrounding streets and cleaning toilets, but also sitting or standing in front of doors, making sure that the guests know where they’re going, or where they’re not allowed to be going.
I also got a chance to chat with a homeless refugee from Kurdistan: a reminder that it only takes the slightest of nudges for a life to lose control. He despairs of London: “Grenfell Tower,” he said to me. “How can they help me, when they can’t help the people in Grenfell Tower?” He now lives in a passageway in Victoria and, when his personal circumstances permit, he intends to go to Manchester or Liverpool, where he hopes he’ll have better luck with the council.
Over a fantastic lamb tagine dinner, in front of raucous karaoke, I meet Abu, a living, breathing case study of the results Crisis can achieve. Like my friend from Kurdistan, Abu used to be a homeless refugee in London. He tells me that he used to sleep on the endless night buses instead of out on the cold and dangerous streets – life expectancy for a homeless person in the UK is 47. Luckily, he was referred to Crisis and they were able to find him a home. But finding shelter is only the beginning of the end for homelessness.
The next challenge, Abu explains, is to build skills. He unfolds an A3 poster timetable of all the educational programmes at the Crisis Skylight centre in Croydon, including football with Crystal Palace and computer coding. Finally, Crisis helps people hunt for work. ‘That is how we end homelessness,’ Abu says. Only with shelter, skills and employment can someone be truly free from homelessness.
Crisis at Christmas is a beautiful hateful project: a beautiful response to one of the most hateful maladies of our society.
There are an estimated 236,000 homeless people in Great Britain, including 50,000 children. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, homelessness has increased in England by 132% – according to their own official estimates. Crisis predict an ‘accelerating increase’ in homelessness in England over the next 25 years.
It is bewildering that the UK government has no strategic plan for ending homelessness. No statements, no targets, no time frames. I’m sorry, but why the fuck not?
Canada’s community-based solution to end homelessness would cost their citizens the price of one cup of coffee per week.