Crisis at Christmas

‘I have traveled all the way from the South of France to see you Sarah,’ the middle aged man chirped reading my name badge.

‘I am flattered sir – it must have been a bit warmer there,’ I replied as I looked up from the sheet of names, numbers, and check in times.

‘It was indeed,’ the man grinned.

Stood in front of me was a gentleman wearing a rather thin black jacket and a scruffy brown Russian hat. He had a friendly smile and spoke eloquently.

‘See, I walked from Kings Cross St Pancreas for you,’ He proclaimed pointing to his belongings looking proud.

‘I am impressed, how nice of you,’ I replied in gratitude.

Sure enough this man was gripping onto a luggage trolley that had been acquired from St Pancreas International Station. The familiar blue logo could been seen peaking through his belongings. This man carried his life on this metal trolley.

‘I have a business you know,’ he announced.

‘That’s amazing, what do you do?’ I encouraged.

‘Well I am selling my things, I made £4 this morning in Camden. I don’t need 4 packs of baby wipes you see, nor do I need this or this’ he said flinging out a pair of ladies stockings, a tube of toothpaste and other such toiletries.

‘What a great idea,’ I said.

‘Yes but less people out today because of the cold,’ he shook his head.

He proceeded to show me his card reader stored inside a glove. ‘It it for when I sell the Big Issue,’ he explained.

Next, the gentleman lowered himself to my level and looked me straight in the eye.

‘Would you like a chair?’ I offered.

‘No, I’m kneeling now. Sarah there is something I would like to ask you ‘ He stated.

‘What’s that then?’ I inquired.

‘I would like to propose to you,’ he asked through a smile.

‘And how long do I have to make my mind up. Will you give me the day?’ I checked.

‘Darling I will give you how ever much time you need,’ He clarified.

We had a good giggle together before I took his details and checked in his belongings. This man, trusted us with his entire wardrobe, all his possessions and indeed his livelihood. Working in the cloakroom at Crisis at Christmas, I had a great responsibility. If any luggage was lost I would never be forgiven. Guests come to the center to use facilities they normally don’t have access to. Crisis provides homeless people with food, showers, hair cuts, doctor appointments and entertainment. During  my shift 385 plates of breakfast and 350 servings of lunch were served.

During their visit most guests like to drop off their bags so they can give their shoulders a rest. It is vital to keep all luggage safe and ordered, ensuring everything is returned to its rightful owner. Sleeping bags, blankets, clothes, passports and much more was handed over to us for safe keeping.

‘I don’t believe in drama or negatively’ a jolly man stated as he danced his way over to me.

‘That’s fantastic, me too Sir. what are you listening to?’ I asked as I heard his music blare from his pocket.

‘I always listen to music, I organise parties with house music and hip-hop’ the man explained.

His intense positive aura was touching. Despite his circumstances he remained happy. The show must go on as they say.  There was me getting upset when I got a speeding ticket or getting annoyed at my parents for no apparent reason. This man was the true representation of how we should all think. If he could remain upbeat with no stability in his life, surely we can all try a little harder to be thankful and happy.

I spoke in depth with a lady about how the system had failed her, how she came off benefits because she refused to lie about her health. She wanted to make it on her own. She began busking to get money. Again her life possessions all fit in a modestly sized trolley bag.  God got this woman through impossibly hard times. She spoke to him regularly and he guided her to sing and make money. This woman spoke her stream of consciousness. It made me realise that I was possibly the first person for a while that she had stopped and listened. I soon began to understand that I need not say a thing. Nodding, smiling and shaking my head at the appropriate moments was enough. I spied a bump under her jumper and my heart sank. Was she pregnant, dragging her trolley around London, looking for somewhere to sleep alone?

Another bloke had been living in a hostel for a year. He hated it. Currently, he happily lived in a tent in a garden centre in Highgate. This tent – or should I say his tent, made him happier than the hostel ever did. This is not to say he didn’t long for a real home but he loved living in the posh Highgate Hill and smiled away as he told us about exploring Waterloo Park.

‘Would you like anything?’ I asked the next lady in line.

‘No, she doesn’t want anything, she just loves me,’ the gentleman who had just retrieved his possessions replied.

She grinned and they left the centre together.

‘Look what some person gave me on the street the other day,’ a middle aged man wearing a bobble hat said as he presented a supposedly winning scratch card.

‘£5,000, £5,000 and £5,000 but it’s mean, it’s not real,’ he quickly explained.

‘Oh that’s not very nice of them,’ I sympathised.

‘I know, I gave it to my daughter when she flew in from Australia for her birthday. Apparently, it doesn’t work. I kept it anyway. Look its a picture of her. She is twenty-two,’ the man pulled out his wallet and showed us.

‘She is beautiful,’ I replied.

The bedraggled man proceeded to tell me about bumping into a man who blamed him for stealing his crack last night on the street.

‘I don’t do that stuff anymore,’ he promised.

‘So this man is here today?’ I asked.

‘Yes, he is upstairs it is stressing me out’ he said in pain.

It is hard enough living on the streets, without having altercations with others. I couldn’t begin to imagine a life without a home. These people all seemed intelligent. How did they get to this stage?

None of the guests had chosen this way of life. We are all scared to talk to homeless people, me included but why? They are just humans. Young men my age wondered in with backpacks, older men stumbled in with sacks and a few ladies checked in too. There were physically and mentally ill individuals. All were vulnerable.

Later as we walked back to the tube station I noticed more than ever people sat begging. Talking to homeless citizens in the center felt comfortable. We joked and chatted. However, directing people shivering in the cold to a place for a free hot meal was heartbreaking.

‘Hi mate, do you know about the crisis centre?’ I asked crouching next to a beggar on the pavement. His sleeping bag was wrapped around him and his hands were clasped around a discarded Starbucks cup.

‘Yes, but that’s no good, food isn’t the problem, I need a bed,’ he looking through vacant eyes.

‘They can advise you on where to stay, they could even send you to the other centre, where they have over-night shelter.’ I informed him.

‘They couldn’t yesterday, I need to get £17.50 for tonight so I can pay for a hostel to sleep in. I am so cold and tired,’ he said looking at the floor.

‘Why don’t you get some free food, the centre is just down there?’ I pointed down the road.

‘I only have 70p from one hour of begging, I just need money, I don’t need food. My misses died 7 weeks ago, that’s why I am here.The house was in her name. I am on the waiting list for a space in a hostel. For now I just have to pay  for the other one,’ he explained.

‘I’m so sorry, please promise me to get a hot cup of tea and some food,’ I said.

I didn’t know what more to say or offer. He appreciated talking to someone and not being ignored. However, what could I do? I couldn’t bring him home or give him a roof.

We walked away in a social dilemma.  Should we take £20 out of an ATM for this poor, grieving man?  Surely he would spend it on the hostel. Even if he bought a bottle of rum with the money, I couldn’t blame him. But what was the right thing to do?  I just wanted to fix all his problems.

Next, we saw a figure hunched over a cardboard cup with some pennies in.

‘Hello,’ I said, sitting next to her.

She lifted her head, revealing a cut lip and greasy hair poking out of her hood. Her hands were swollen, red and chapped. I recognised her She had been in the day centre that morning. She confidently strutted along the college corridor, talking away to others. Now she sat helplessly all alone in the entrance of Kings Cross Station.

How can we help? Will there ever be an end to homelessness.  During the induction to Crisis at Christmas the fundraiser said; ‘I hope one year I will be out of work and we won’t be needed.’ However, currently this seems like a long way off.

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