The building looked different to how I’d seen it previously.. that is before the guests had arrived. The hall was large and it was the only area that both guests and volunteers had access to. In the corner a TV blared. Groups of tables and chairs were set out, next to areas for clothing distribution and a hatch were guests were given hot drinks and food. Bowls of crisps, sweets and biscuits were everywhere. This felt slightly odd. Creating a party atmosphere was perhaps well intended but seemed a little disingenuous to the reality of the circumstances.
Regardless of the training sessions I’d attended I felt apprehension. The situation, we had been warned, could be unpredictable. Violence sometimes occurred but this was usually outside and between guests. The biggest threat was overdose. The year before a guest had died at the shelter on New Years Eve. Although beds were checked every 15 mins the wheezing ‘or death rattle’ had not been identified in time. Most guests I’d been told, had been philosophical about this. ‘He had died with a warm meal inside him in a safe bed surrounded by his mates’. ‘God bless’ they wrote in the art workshop the next day.
I was working front of house – so this meant companionship, tea fetching and board games although my first official task was toilet duty. Drugs and alcohol were not permitted but addiction, I witnessed, was a relentless master. Toilet checks were performed under the neon lights every 15 minutes for substance use, overdose or other illicit activity. There was no real bother on any of my shifts.
The volunteers were plenty. They outnumbered the guests on some evenings and encompassed a wide range of people. Food was donated generously, was in excess at times and of top quality. Some of Bristol’s best chefs were doing shifts in the kitchen. Three meals a day were given out, sweets crisps and biscuits in-between and the shelter tried to ensure that no one was turned away from the 50 beds available. Most guests moved in and stayed for the two week Christmas period. This was usually the most stable place they had been for the entire year normally moving on every night.
The guests were of all ages, and came from all walks of life. Some were local residents who were alone at Christmas and wanted company. Some were ‘hidden homeless’ – who survived by kipping on mates sofas and gave their usual hosts a break over the festive period. Most though were homeless the year through and stuck in unbreakable cycles of addiction, unemployment, mental health illness and prostitution.
It was a Christmas bubble. We all knew that the situation wasn’t real. That nothing would change. But for those two weeks of the year, life was made more bearable for the guests. Jokes were exchanged, games were lost and won. Second hand clothes were traded. Tea was drunk and songs were sung.
It was difficult to see how some of the guests had ended up there. Clever, funny, personable, educated. Others illustrated the miserable and mostly hopeless reality of those living in the grip of addiction. Missing person cards were handed out to us at the beginning of the shift in the hope that amongst the guests a specific friend or loved one could be identified. Occasionally people were recognised, but often they didn’t want to be found ‘Give them the message I’m alrite’ They would say.
Nicholas was seventeen. He had problems with his family and at school and had been crashing on mate’s sofas for over a year. The first thing I noticed about him was how clever he was. If he was engaged in something he was really bright. He would win at nearly all the games he played and would teach others. He was extremely patient at my totally inability to pick up a lot of the games we played. Nicholas didn’t have an obvious class A or alcohol addiction (although I’m not medically qualified to make any kind of assessment especially given it was only three shifts I volunteered). He talked about wanting to go to college and said he spent most of his time smoking weed. I saw so much potential there. Don’t drop anchor here, I thought.
Edward and Rosa seemed to be a couple – both alcoholics. They were in their forties would have once been well dressed had it not been for the dirt and tatter of their clothes. I found them the most difficult to sit with. He would insult her constantly, both to her face in front of other people. A consistent barrage of verbal abuse. She had swollen ulcers on her hands and feet – infected track marks. She seemed indifferent to the constant degradation.
Alan scared me. He was very tall, he may have been in the forces once. He observed the room and stood apart from everyone. He was always watching. Always looking for an opportunity, assessing the power relationships and dynamics in the room. Street life teaches you a different set of survival skills. There was something intimidating which overwhelmed me yet in a flash it was gone and he was crying like a baby.
Ricardo was from Brazil. I spent my first evening almost exclusively with him. He was in his twenties. He was a rent boy – and extremely distressed. I held his hands as he cried for hours. He told me stories of life on the streets, of rape. Of concerns over HIV and the stigma amongst homeless communities about homosexuality. He had been a dancer. He delighted at dressing up and ransacked the clothing piles for fuchsia fur coats and sequin handbags which quickly got traded for cigarettes and other favours. The only thing I could do was be with him and see him and hear him for who he was and what he had been through.. He cried so many tears that night. I really felt that I had helped. The next day I was happy to see him again and bounced over to catch up on how he was doing. He didn’t remember me.
It was a year ago I volunteered. I know I helped but ultimately found it hard to feel good about my contribution. The shelter was over staffed – some shifts even had waiting lists. Food flowed as did the goodwill to almost obscene amounts…what a lot of Christmas spirit… But where are we the rest of the year I wondered? The shelter struggles to find staff outside of Christmas. Sure. A brief respite from the trauma and danger of life on the street, but the ‘guests’ in reality were lost. This was a bitter pill to swallow. The experience stayed with me but it was a good lesson. Anyone can be homeless. Anyone can be the victim of abuse or suffer mental illness or become an addict. And it happens all year round. I decided that it’s more important to contribute in a way which were sustainable and longer term. But I guess most of us didn’t get around to being that altruistic yet.
There are other stories from the shelter of course, but its Christmas and there is shopping to be done and I guess you won’t have much time to read them all.. I’m lucky that I get to choose not to be at the shelter this year. I’ll never forget my experience. I’d like to think that the same ‘guests’ will make it through to 2012 but then ….I will never know.
Copyright © Franko B 2011
Photo taken by artist Franko B – the rest of the collection is well worth seeing: