As with many things (a song, a poem, a sample of data, a performance) a blog post can represent a glimpse, a single account and perspective of a specific moment in time. I wrote about my first experience of Caring at Christmas in 2011 having volunteered the previous year. Despite having enjoyed my time, I left feeling cynical. I completed only three shifts but the memories of the people I encountered stayed with me, as did the knowledge that their lives would not change radically. It seemed the shelter provided an all too temporary respite from the realities of an often harsh everyday existence. This I now understand is a common ‘first timers’ reaction, referred to fondly as ‘The Florence Nightingale effect’. Whilst I never ever set out to assist with any kind of life ‘intervention’ I left feeling frustrated at the ways of the world, at the cycle of poverty, crime, addiction, prostitution that it was possible to get stuck in, at the ‘system’ which was struggling to support people with complex needs and which often could not, and also particularly with cases of addiction, the inevitable inability of many people to help themselves.
Yet, in spite of this, this December I was back at the Shelter and in it for the long haul. So what was different? Well my circumstances for one. Due to a change of career direction I found myself, to begin with, with a little time on my hands. This year it wasn’t possible to make the long rail journeys to visit family scattered around the UK. Whilst I probably I could have blagged a place somewhere local for dinner on the 25th, as I am sure many others could testify there are few things to make you feel more like an alien appendage than being tagged onto someone else’s family dinner on Christmas day. I’d been keen to get more experience working directly in frontline positions with people and I felt time at the Shelter would provide this. I wasn’t done with this topic of volunteering and my ongoing quest to understand if altruism really existed, but mostly I was just cheesed off with the ‘same old, same old’ engine of (often conspicuous) consumption Christmas had become. I can’t say I’d previously given religion that much thought (and caring at Christmas is not a religious organisation) but I’m pretty convinced had Jesus ever had the misfortune of witnessing two grown women locking horns like stags in a trolly fight over the last figgy pudding in Asda, it’s fair to say our bearded friend he would be ‘turning in his cave’.
Having had some experience of Caring at Christmas my expectations of the overall impact I might have on the lives of guests were lower, but perhaps more significantly I’d been forced to admit, that this year as a volunteer, I needed the Shelter as much as the Shelter needed me. This year I completed just under 12 shifts. From set up on Christmas eve I was there until we said goodbye when the shelter closed on New Years day. My task was the same.. a ‘general’ assistant – which meant working in the day room alongside the guests – companionship, tea drinking, talking and listening, toilet duty, some housekeeping tasks and ‘mucking’ in with anything else that was needed.
The stories I heard and sometimes the scenes I witnessed could often be challenging… serious abuse, rape, extreme self harm, multiple addiction (in some cases) but also something as simple as needing company, a joke and a nice cup of tea at an often emotionally testing time of year.
I could relay their stories to you, as I did in my last blog post, but truth be told.. this year I decided they are not mine to tell. From my experience I can say however that the terms: homeless, vulnerable, mentally ill, in crisis, addicted, psychotic (I could go on) often melt quickly into insignificance when you realise the person you are speaking despite their circumstances is just like you.
The shelter gave me an opportunity to apply my clown training in a way that I had not anticipated. I didn’t perform, mime or roll about with a red nose on, but the skills I learnt through clown enabled me to engage with guests at the shelter. To be able to see the humanity beneath behaviour and context is vital and clown training helped me to do this. A guest told me that life on the street is ruled by the ‘laws of the jungle’ and it was perhaps this primal basis of clown communication which often helped me engage with people comfortably in a way that I couldn’t have done before. Additionally the potential of the creative arts was emphasised as I was amazed at how a painting, drawing and often rap or poem could have such power as a tool of expression, understanding and source of discussion and meaning.
I put in some hours this year, and I also learnt the need for ‘care of the self’ in an often emotionally demanding role. I managed effectively and only really began to feel emotional towards the end during the last few shifts. As I had previously questioned the impact of the shelter years before, I was humbled when a guest shared his view with me. Yes, he said, the shelter was temporary, but for those few days it was often the only time of the year that the guests knew where they would sleep, were guaranteed a hot meal and most significantly, he said tearfully, a safe space. As a performer I know that the need for a ‘safe space’ in order to create is vital. Whilst the context was radically different I could suddenly comprehend the daily roulette wheel that life on the street could be and that this short term provision over Christmas was vitally important and meaningful to our guests, particularly when other support services were shut.
My experience at the shelter gave me so much this year. It reminded me of the necessity and experience of everyday and simple work, gratitude, friendship, teamwork, companionship, and acceptance. Whilst all of the 300+ volunteers each had their own reason for being at the shelter this Christmas I learnt the potential of goodwill en masse from people of varying and also no religion. In short, I discovered that those long forgotten perhaps more traditional principles of Christmas were still very much alive, when I gave Cribbs Causeway and the EastEnders Christmas omnibus a miss and actually bothered to go out and look for them.
I also learnt more about the organisation – how it acts as kind of broker for other charities, how none of the donations received are wasted and are passed on. I found ways to continue to help beyond the Christmas period both with ‘Caring at Christmas’ and associated new charity ‘Safe Stay Bristol’ – a sudden homelessness intervention scheme for 16-25 year olds.
My choice to volunteer with the homeless at Christmas could be met by others with bafflement around my own motivations or expectations, and its true not everyone could see the value in such an activity. So I will admit now that its not altruism, in fact I am a very, very selfish person. I volunteered because amongst the communitas and Christmas spirit, this experience allowed me to see further potential in my own skills and abilities, and gain confidence in their application. It wasn’t always easy, and I accepted that my impact on the lives of the guests is unlikely to engender any measurable or significant change. However if I have learnt anything from the guests I’ve met its the ongoing daily need for hope, companionship and laughter in the face of great adversity.
The real truth is that I had a choice to be there, in that moment, and hold the hand of a rape victim while she recovered from her ordeal… or not… and this time I chose to be there regardless of the outcome, in the knowledge that she was holding my hand too.
you’ll know where to find me.
Please visit the website above for further information about the organisation and volunteering. I’ll also be running the Bristol 10K in May so keep your eyes peeled for my Justgiving page coming soon – Happy New Year!