Tag Archives: homelessness

Volunteering with Caring at Christmas 3: Supervisory responsibility and learning more about homelessness

1015476_1440642532833340_1366288574_o

Caring at Christmas is a homeless shelter in Bristol, which provides people with warmth and safe accommodation over the Christmas period. My first experience of volunteering in 2011 left me let’s say, philosophical, about homelessness in the city and my contribution towards relieving it. After returning for a second time in 2012 I felt more optimistic. So what did my third year volunteering at the project yield? – an opportunity for growth. This year as well as being a general volunteer and gaining experience in different areas, I also undertook the responsibility of being a supervisor. It was an on-the job learning experience and at times I definitely felt my heart in my mouth. Despite this I left feeling like I had made a valuable contribution. So to keep up with tradition, here are a few thoughts on my third Caring at Christmas experience and why I value it so highly.

IMG_5490

Caring at Christmas

Providing approximately 50 beds for homeless people as well as around 300 hot meals a day for residents and other guests the shelter operates over the peak Christmas period providing for Bristol’s homeless as other support services are reduced for the Christmas holidays. In many cases this is the only time a guest will have access to the same bed for 7 consecutive nights and are guaranteed a safe place and a hot meal for this length of time (not to mention the all important Christmas Dinner!). In addition, snacks, cakes hot drinks and entertainment and services are provided such as arts and creative activities, first aid, live music, companionship, counseling, showers and laundry service, hairdressing, footcare and recreational opportunities such as DVDs, pool, table football, ping pong, board games and jigsaw puzzles as well as the provision of clothes, toiletries, sleeping bags, blankets and rucksacks. For the rest of the year the shelter is operated by the charity The Julian Trust who provide around 90 hot meals and 18 beds a night for 5 nights a week. Caring at Christmas also research and produce the survival handbook an annually printed resource and support services guide for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness in Bristol. Whilst having a core component of staff, approximately 700 volunteers support the charitable project and it’s funded by donations and contributions from a wide variety of sources including individuals, groups, schools, communities, companies and businesses. For me this year was slightly different as in addition to companionship and spending time with guests, I also gained experience and an insight into working the on staff door/donations, the kitchen, admin and working the night shift.

IMG_5494

Volunteering and on being a supervisor

Whilst I have previously been a general volunteer, to be in a position of responsibility and an identified person people sought in an emergency was a daunting prospect. There were always numerous volunteers on shift but the nature of the environment can occasionally be dynamic and this was in the forefront of my mind when I first applied. A supervisor assists the lead supervisor in maintaining the smooth running and safety of guests and volunteers at the shelter. This can be anything from answering queries, dealing with resource issues to assisting with first aid incidents, fire evacuation and managing conflict.

Whilst professionally, I’ve previously been responsible for managing small projects, assisting directly in an operational capacity and being responsible for people, particularly those who could be described as vulnerable (or in a vulnerable condition) was a new situation for me. The shelter is an environment which demands that you be reactive and whilst there are regular tasks to be performed on every shift, it can also be difficult to predict what sort of things will happen each time. For the most part, the only way to learn is to turn up each day and gain the experience. I was fortunate enough to be in a supervisory team of three serving alongside experienced staff so I was never made to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility and always felt supported. I also took part in the St John’s ambulance first aid course that was offered and undertook the shelter’s own supervisory training session. During my time volunteering I had to draw on things I learnt during both these sessions, but even so, it’s hard to be fully prepared for the first time someone faints on you!

It’s true to say it seemed there was less time to become absorbed in the individual stories and lives of the guests, less time for the fun or creative activities I’d become used to (although I did manage to squeeze in a few turns at monopoly and some clowning around at the ping pong table). Instead I began to gain an insight into what it takes to run a project, learn more about the experiences and expectations of the volunteers and begin to understand the resources, processes and vast numbers of people needed to make it all possible. Once again I was amazed at the generosity of so many donating time, abilities, money and resources to Caring at Christmas. It seemed that no matter whatever skills people had there was a way they could contribute, from local groups knitting clothes, to businesses and community organisations donating fresh produce, to individuals and groups contributing their annual secret santa presents or children sacrificing their months pocket money.

I also got the opportunity to witness how Caring at Christmas has grown and developed over the past few years and how it continues to evolve. The need to be reactive is necessary not just operationally (working and managing more efficiently) but also organisationally (maintaining sustainability) as particularly so in times of austerity when the risk to charities which rely on donations can be a significant one. Additionally harder times will often mean there are even more people who rely on those organisations which meet a social need or provide a social service. The issues of homelessness are not unique to our time, however, the ways in which these can be addressed are always developing. One of the best things about working in an environment with volunteers is that people participate to honour a cause they believe in, help others or develop specific skills and its exactly that motivation and passion which forges an environment where innovation can happen.

IMG_5495

Homelessness in Bristol – improving services and understanding need

As ever the experience of Caring at Christmas perhaps illustrated both the best and worst of the human spirit. The shelter provides a glimpse into the existence of homeless people in Bristol, but after 3 years of volunteering I realise that beyond the immediate provision of food and shelter there is a lot more to understand about the complex nature of homelessness and the associated social problems that can be both a cause or a consequence, as well as the varied pathways and means to solutions (presuming that a solution is desired at all as this is not always the case for each person).

Walking home from my shifts at Christmas, I discovered that there were others on the streets that chose not to stay or eat at the shelter, and I wondered why this was and how many others or ‘hidden homeless’ there were out there. Whilst the Christmas spirit may be a motivator for many people in making a contribution to the shelter and there is a pragmatic need for additional support services over the Christmas period, the reality is for many of the guests is that homelessness persists all year round.   So it follows that so does the need for support and services as well as the funds and volunteers to make them happen.

Hello 2015! From Caring at Christmas to Caring in Bristol

The face to face shelter environment can be an intense one and for me its always necessary to take a few days after the experience to reflect on how things went, the stories I heard, the decisions I made and what I could have improved upon. My supervisory experience amounted to just two shifts but it was enough to install within me the significance of the responsibility, which is the main thing I will take with me from this year. No matter what training you receive in many ways to succeed in a dynamic operational environment there is simply no other way to learn other than working as a team, relying on others to guide you and doing the best you can. Whilst the Caring at Christmas shelter has now closed, the good news is that this year, the journey doesn’t end on January 1st.  As Caring in Bristol (the shelter’s parent company) develops, there are further opportunities to get involved throughout the year, whether this is through fund and awareness raising, taking part in sponsored events, developing projects, skills and knowledge or gaining practical experience, all whilst working with a committed team and volunteers dedicated to making a positive difference and responding to homelessness as a community issue.

I’ll be continuing the journey by, amongst other things, jumping out of a plane.

Challenge on.

Caring at Christmas is a project by Caring in Bristol, a charitable company which delivers and develops vital support to homeless and vulnerable people all year round through effective, volunteer driven projects. Visit the Caring in Bristol website for more information and to find out how you can contribute.

Advertisements

Opening doors and strengthening communities – the Volunteer Host experience at Bristol Night Stop

I recently completed some communications work for new charity Bristol Night Stop. Bristol Night Stop is a daughter organisation of Caring at Christmas – the homelessness charity which I’ve previously volunteered for over the festive season – and a topic of some of my previous Blogposts. Below is a write up of one of the interviews I undertook with the host volunteers and a copy of the short promotional film that was made. The organisation is recruiting now! Could you welcome a young person into your home for a night? Please consider it.. more info can be found at http://bristolnightstop.org/

HandRBNS

The idea of welcoming in a young person you don’t know into your home for the night may seem like something you would never consider, but not for Richard and Heather Drake of Bedminster in Bristol. Since 2008 they have opened their door and provided overnight bed and breakfast to more than 100 young people in crises through the Bristol Night Stop project.  At a time when youth homelessness in Bristol is increasing whilst funding for support services are being cut both nationally and locally, I went to talk to Richard and Heather Bristol Night Stops longest serving host volunteers about their experiences and to investigate what exactly Bristol Night Stop involved and why they do it.

Bristol Night Stop is a sudden homelessness intervention scheme for young people in the city aged 16-25. It aims to provide immediate intervention and a short term accommodation solution to young person in crises. The charity aims to address the issues ‘from day one for as long as it takes’ providing a source of advocacy and support to the young person in order to address their immediate needs. Key to its successful operations are the volunteer hosts who provide a hot meal and overnight accommodation to a young person in crises.

Richard and Heather are two of the organisations longest serving volunteers and I was keen to find out more about them. What was it that made them want to give up their time and volunteer? What impact does an unknown teenager in crises have when staying in their house?

On first sighting their house is just like any other – a small terrace in Bedminster, Bristol with two modest sized bedrooms. Reassuringly unremarkable and at the same time very cosy I was greeted on arrival by Heather who ushered me in warmly, took my coat and offered me tea. My tour around their home illustrated that the ‘guest’ accommodation or spare room was furnished simply with a sofa bed. For me it felt like an average house but I soon learnt that for the young people who come to stay overnight, the stability and companionship that it brings can be essential respite from domestic upheaval with the next stop on the journey being the streets. The term ‘young person in crises’ is a broad one and can often associated with a host of chaotic life incidents and experiences but I soon learnt that the reality of the young people being referred by the organisation Bristol Night Stop was often quite different.

Many of the young people were those who had fallen through the system, who didn’t immediately qualify for statuary emergency services due to a lack of acute circumstances like addiction or physical abuse. The young people had come from a variety of backgrounds some were in work some not but all vulnerable, and as Richard told me ‘we can see how quickly people can deteriorate when life has gone wrong , and we don’t want them ending up at a night shelter’.

The services provided by the couple are quite simple, an evening meal and bed and breakfast in the morning.  Aren’t they worried? I asked about opening their door to an unknown youth? No, says Richard, there is nervousness but it’s always on the part of the young person, the role of the host is to relax and reassure, if you relax the young person will relax and that’s what it’s about’ Heather added ‘there a sense of trust simply letting them into your home.. having said that we really haven’t had any bad behaviour over the years – It seems to me actually quite a small thing to do, an evening meal and a bed for a night but it comes at a time that is actually crucial – a small thing can come at a time when it can make a big difference’.

Bristol Night Stop volunteers don’t necessarily have to come from a specific background, material or marital situation, and the organisation doesn’t distinguish on the grounds of race ethnicity or disability in fact applications from groups that are under represented are positively encouraged. Richard adds ‘We are already parents and we do it to reach out a hand to a young person.. We have seven kids between us all with their issues, we would like to think someone would be there to help if they needed it’ when describing the act of volunteering he suggests’ if people have got kids – if your son or daughter said their friend is having trouble with their family you would let them come and stay for a few nights, its not that different’.

Already I am won over by Richard’s twinkly eyes and gentle demeanour even so I thought, in practice how does it work out? I enquire about the need to take sensible precautions (by precautions I mean hide the family silver and well what about drugs or bad behaviour?). Richard smiles ‘ its very much about managing expectations  – you trust yes  but not too stupid degrees, just as you would have with friends of a son or daughter, you need to have a degree of faith in human nature yes,  but these kids have come from some difficulty and probably their behaviour has been part of that – but we have had very little problems over the years’.

As a host, the Bristol Night Stop does allow you some control over which kind of young people may come and stay at what your preferences are allowing the volunteers to place some of their own conditions around when and how the young people come to their homes.  All potential placements have previously worked with Bristol Night Stop and are risk assessed, so volunteers wouldn’t be placed with a chaotic heavy drug user for example. Richard points out that nerves got the better of the couple to start with adding ‘Now we don’t have really have any specific conditions but we may have done in the beginning before we became experienced’ .Every host is different,  Heather assures me, there are different degrees and different ways that people make themselves available – the hosts are matched with the young people and ideally there would be a lot of hosts around. If you have requirements and things are going to upset you let the young person know’ (for example sitting in a favourite arm chair!) As a host I need to say it because they are not going to know unless you tell them.. its about having the presence of mind  to say what bothers you – this is my preference, these are the boundaries, they are your guests, on your terms. You need to take charge yes, but you also need to know their name’

Heather and Richard are supported by Bristol Night Stop through ongoing mentoring and training and the process includes CRB checks, risk assessment, fire check as well as the opportunity to get together with other hosts who can also act as an additional source of information and experience – Heather  says  ‘meeting other hosts is a nice aspect we get together and have socials go to the pub and swop anecdotes – it’s a good support network and we get a good idea of all the different approaches the hosts take’. The organisation aims to keep hosts connected and communicating as well as being reflexive and responsive to the needs of both the volunteers and  the young people who are being supported, with Heather noting ‘we felt very well looked after by the organisation and always felt like we were never expected to do anything we didn’t want to do.

Beyond the Bristol network the Night Stop Scheme accredited by DePaul operates successfully in 40 other cities.

So the big question is why do they do it? In a world where it is all too easy to leave that empty spare room standing full of junk or sink into the sofa in front of the TV alone of an evening – what do the couple get from offering a bed to a young person they don’t know?

Richard explains ‘there are positive pleasures – it is a positive pleasure, you are not looking for a sense of gratitude or huge thanks because you won’t get that a lot of the time, these are young people in a difficult place in their lives they are not best placed to be grateful, but it’s all about meeting people, it’s interesting.  I like meeting people, it’s fascinating. You get the pleasure of seeing these young people who are nice people, its restores your faith in human nature.  It’s a fantastic demonstration that people are okay really’

For Heather compassion also plays a big part, suggesting it’s perhaps ‘a residual maternal concern about young people and the difficulties they get into’

Bristol Night Stop aims to be responsive acting quickly to sudden homelessness and the organisation places a strict limit in the number of nights placements can be (usually only 1 night, but capped at a maximum of 3) so the scheme does not leave any time for any deep bonding or soul searching between hosts and guests.  What about attachment I ask? Do you ever keep in touch? Never says Richard, ‘none of the young people that have stayed have ever come back to the house, it’s not part of the scheme – there are quite strict rules about boundaries .. you can’t come in as a rescuer , you need to have the bigger picture in mind. It can be frustrating to not know the rest of the story – where the kids have come from and where they are going, but your role is to just be there for them in the moment when they have nowhere else to go’.

Whilst the couple have stressed that the service they provide for Bristol Night Stop and its young people in crisis is actually quite a simple and easy one, In Richard and Heathers case it’s clear that the qualities of a volunteer host also include stability, a sense of humour and life experience, with the added benefits of wider family support – Richard says proudly ‘most of our friends and family think it’s a good thing we don’t really have any doubters … the kids are very supportive and think its sensible’

With homelessness in Bristol increasing there is a clear need for more volunteers and the organisation is currently running a host volunteer recruitment campaign for the Bristol Night Stop scheme with a number of events planned over the next year.  As well as illustrating the difference that the service makes to those young people who need it, my discussions with the volunteers have revealed that the act of opening your door to a stranger may not actually be as difficult or as dangerous as your initial preconceptions may have you believe?  In comparison to the significance that just one or two nights could make to the lives of a young person in crises the Richard and Heather have convinced me that the gesture is actually quite a small one.

There are many things that the couple could be admired for. Trust, compassion and an altruistic nature yes, but for me the greatest sense I am left with, is that of two people taking a simple action to assist a young person for a local cause they believe in.  As Richard’s final remarks to set out ‘host volunteering and opening your door to a young person in crises is not what everyone does or expects you to do yet people always talk about society having no sense of community – what is this if not the community they are wishing was there?’

Bristol Night Stop is based at the Fire Station and is recruiting host volunteers log on to http://www.BristolNightStop.org for more information.

Ujima Radio interview – more Caring at Christmas

Here are the links to the Ujima Radio interview we did about Caring for Christmas. Thanks to presenter Rhianan and co interviewees Ellise Scourse and Tommy Popcorn. Check out Ujima Radio for some fresh tunes 98 FM Bristol. http://www.ujimaradio.com

Part one: – starts at around – 20:24

http://www.podcasts.canstream.co.uk/ujimaradio/audio/ujimaradio_14-01-13_1-16_1358179206.mp3

Part two:

http://www.podcasts.canstream.co.uk/ujimaradio/audio/ujimaradio_14-01-13_1-17_1358182807.mp3

ujima

A Christmas made visible (altruism is dead, long live reciprocity -) a second experience of ‘Caring at Christmas’

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.

So,

next Christmas,

you’ll know where to find me.

Caring at Christmas is a registered charity that helps homeless people at Christmas and throughout the year

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!

Tales of Christmas past #1 The Invisible Christmas

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:

http://www.franko-b.com/gallery/photography/g_photography27.htm