Updated: Feb 11
While lots of us will be panic wrapping gifts and trying to fend off family arguments on the 23rd and 24th of December, Rebekah Lyons will be volunteering for Crisis at Christmas. The charity hosts centres around the country at Christmas time for homeless people. Whether it’s to have a good meal, get a safe night’s sleep, gain access to health services or meet with social housing representatives – Crisis are on a mission to end homelessness and get people off the streets for good.
Bek moved in with her grandma in 2017 when her parents divorced and sold their family home. This sudden change of circumstances made her sit back and take stock of the situation. As she puts it: ‘if you’re self-employed a lot of estate agents and landlords won’t touch you with a barge pole because you don’t have guaranteed income, so if I didn’t have my nan, who would I have stayed with? All my friends lived at home too and even though I probably could have stayed at one of theirs for a few nights, it’s not my friend’s mum’s problem. So just like that, I could be homeless.’
This new perspective led to a new Christmas tradition: instead of choosing between her parents, Bek decided to go to Crisis and volunteer. She attended the Bermondsey centre, an overnight centre open for 8 days from the 23rd December. By Christmas Day, that year, the centre had over 200 guests and the numbers were growing.
Every centre offers hot food, showers, toiletry packs, new clothing, medical and dentist consultations, advice sessions, social and housing appointments and Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And most of them now have adjacent dog centres too: ‘a lot of the guests have companions and shouldn’t have to miss out as a result, so Crisis provides shelter and food for the animals as well.’
It seems Crisis strikes a good balance between keeping people safe by setting guidelines and creating a happy festive environment. ‘It’s not like you have to go to the doctor and the dentist and the social worker before you can enjoy your dinner and bed – it’s flexible. They are fragile people and they need help but it’s still Christmas. The consensus is they’re adults and they’re not in prison, they are there to relax and use the tools available, but they can also enjoy themselves.’
Sadly, the realities of life on the street don’t disappear once a temporary roof is over their head. ‘Even though Crisis provides showers, toiletries and towels, some of the guests are so terrified of losing their stuff and being robbed they don’t take a shower for four days because they won’t take their clothes off and leave them out of sight.’
In 2017, Bek looked after a 27-year old man called Dean with severe cerebral palsy who had fallen through the net of social council support. When Bek met him, he had absolutely no possessions other than the clothes and shoes he was wearing. Misdiagnoses and understaffing in his supported housing meant his was repeatedly bullied and stolen from, leading him back to the streets where the same things occurred. Some of the older male guests were friends of his and when Bek asked about him they told her they looked out for him because he was more vulnerable than them, always trying to retrieve his things for him if they could or prevent them from being stolen in the first place.
Living on the streets is inherently dangerous but it is more dangerous for some people than others. Women are prioritised by charities and councils since they are disproportionately more vulnerable to trafficking, forced drug-taking and forced sex work. And disabled people are placed higher on housing lists too, for obvious reasons. As a result, able-bodied men, of a working age are left at the bottom of housing lists: ‘they are the lowest of the low when it comes to getting council support.’
Bek met a man one year sitting outside the housing office. He had a folder containing all of his documents, every form he would ever need – his CV, his national insurance – everything someone would have in a drawer in their house. But he had been turned away again, there wasn’t any space for him on the housing lists. ‘He told me he’d done this so many times at different charities and advice places but could never catch a break. He was proactive, not lazy, he was ready to go but he was an able-bodied adult male, so was at the bottom of the list and kept slipping through despite his ambition and skills.’
Clearly housing is the limiting factor to Crisis’s success in getting people off the street. According to Bek, ‘they spend every penny fundraised throughout the year on the centres. On rent, wages, power, water, extra food and resources, nothing is wasted. They want to create the best opportunity for guests to get clean, sort out their CVs, gain skills, arrange job interviews and get their lives back on track.But even with this in place, some people fall through the net.’
So what can we do to help? This year, as well as volunteering, Bek is raising money to buy clothes and sleeping bags to contribute to the shop at the Croydon centre. ‘In my first year, Dean and others like him were, quite-rightly, first to have fresh clothes and possessions, which inevitably left others without. I just want to make sure everyone gets something new,’ she tells me. But anything you can give to Crisis is useful, be it your time or money, food or things.
The most important thing about volunteering, in Bek’s opinion, is that it gives people the chance to get to speak to and get to know homeless people, to realise they are normal people in unfortunate circumstances. ‘People often think homeless people are lazy or don’t want to work, they’re druggies who can’t be bothered, but it’s not true – it can happen just like that. You can lose your home because of factors out of your control and if the other parts of your life aren’t geared up for you to be totally independent, that’s it.’
Bek is very passionate about changing how society views homeless people. ‘I think we should address it at school. No charity days at my school were ever about homelessness. We need to get past the stigma and teach children that homeless people are normal people. I don’t know if it has something to do with the fact that so many of them are adult men, perhaps we have less sympathy for them, but at the end of the day any man on the street might be someone’s dad or grandad and at one point they were definitely someone’s little boy.’
Talking to Bek raised some interesting questions about our society’s attitudes towards the homeless in my mind. Do we make unconscious assumptions about homeless people and justify not giving our spare change to them? A little bit of googling will uncover both sides of this debate. In one corner, individual voices and major charities urging you to never give directly to someone begging on the street because ‘your kindness can kill’ and it would be better spent by the experts. In the other, people who believe it’s their choice to do what they want with their money, which it is once you give it to them, and who are we to judge.
Regardless of where you stand in the debate, thinking about homelessness always begs the question: what are you going to do to help? Write to your local MP and demand more funding for social housing? Check party policies on the issue and prioritise it when you vote? Donate regularly to a homelessness charity? Volunteer, like Bek, at a Crisis centre? Donate specific things like sleeping bags and clothes? Or make a New Year’s resolution to stop and talk to homeless people when you see them, give them a sandwich and a smile, and help them feel less invisible?
Whatever it is, let’s all do something. Shelter’s 2018 report showed that 320,000 people in Britain are now homeless and the numbers keep rising. Let’s all be a part of ending this crisis.