Day One: 23rd Dec 2018
It’s unbelievable, the amount of people volunteering today at Crisis at Christmas. It’s also very heart warming to see those with time to spare helping others for nothing.
So this is where I sit, giving strangers my time and happy I am to do so.
We are in Bermondsey, in a derelict warehouse, but there are maybe 50 volunteers on warehouse duties, dragging in pallets full of food, drink, toilet paper, the essentials for survival I suppose.
The goods have been donated by the supermarkets, the delivery vans also, and the drivers have all volunteered their time (and the points on their driving licences I reckon).
It is a hive of activity with an urgency that transcends just the continuous beep, beep of reversing vans and the metallic rumble of pallet trucks solid wheels over rough concrete.
The drivers crew room is full of donated sofas, those that have seen better days. It looks like a down market DFS sale. There is no room to sit, it’s that full, around 80 drivers and navigators in our luminous hi-vis jackets like the next batch of French protestors on the streets of Paris.
We are briefed by Simon who thanked us for our time. Then he goes through the do’s and don’t’s of driving aground London. Don’t drive through the Rotherhithe Tunnel, keep away from bus lanes, be careful and enjoy the shift.
The drivers are split into two distinct categories. Those who do the standard driving in the donated cars, vans, people carriers. They will do the moving of medical staff, food, goods etc. Then there are us, the heavy lifters. MIDAS trained we drive the big stuff, chiller vans and mini-buses, especially mini-buses.
We are held back ready for the mad rush when we have to move the guests from the day centres to the residential centres for the week.
We seem to be treated like the elite. There are around 20 of us and we sit and wait in the crew room.
It is a long wait.
Whilst the other drivers are called, allocated their vehicle, sign it out, go off on their jobs, we wait. They return, we wait.
I wait until 6.30 for my first job, thats three hours of waiting, but that’s fine, we help in the warehouse and the time whizzes by.
Then it all kicks off. Suddenly five mini-buses are required to the North London Day Centre. I’m allocated a set of keys and a navigator, Steve. We sign our names on the big board of names. Find the vehicle in its allocated bay, check it over for insurance reasons and we are off.
The day centres are buildings donated by University’s, School and Colleges. We arrive, 30 minutes later to our allocated place. And boy, was it a shock?
A gleaming building, outside staff and the homeless mix, talk, laugh. Inside, there is music, more laughter, karaoke, food, singing. There are also rooms allocated for medical and dental assistance and volunteers dot the shiny hall helping, chatting, and encouraging the guests.
Tables have been marked with signs reading housing advice, benefits advice, employment advice and are fully manned with helpful staff.
We find the volunteers room and find it packed with people, some resting, others preparing to go and help when call upon.
John, a supervisor with a headset calls for two people to help at the front desk. Two volunteers jump up and get the briefing from him, off they go and two minutes later the two they replace wind their way back for a rest.
It is a beautiful operation.
We wait for 10 minutes before our guests are ready, I go get the mini-bus and park up ready. Then upon my return we are ready to load. The guests seem chipper enough and I chat to a young man called Dan.
He’s in his mid twenties I suppose, made his way from Uxbridge that morning. He’s been homeless for two years and that morning, in the early hours his tent collapses in the rain. He was soaked through, and in disgust, and having pitched his tent the night before next to the grand union canal, he launch it into it.
I told him, being from that area, I couldn’t ever remember launching anything into the canal there, it was sarcasm, I had driven a shopping trolley or two into it. And of course, urinated into it.
We laugh but I can’t help feeling for the guy, especially when he tells me he can’t wait to get into a clean bed for the week.
Once we’ve loaded, I ask the guests if it’s was ok to tell them about The Lord, they groan collectively and I tell them I’m only joking, that I’m really a Satanist.
We set off, a morally illegal turn in the road then I ask that none of the guests say anything about it. That if people are ok with the manoeuvre my name is Jon, if they have a problem with it, then it’s Steve.
We trundle along happily in the rain, Steve starts to talk about football and the guests interact nicely.
25 minutes later and we arrive at the school where the guest will stay for the week, it’s heaving, but the volunteers welcome us and the guests with a smile or two.
We unload and I chat to lady, middle aged, a German called Steph, she thanks us and tells us that it is a great thing that we do, that the British take care of others so well and that she is so grateful.
I concur, and at midnight I leave Bermondsey buzzing and I fall into bed at 02.30 with two puppies wrapped around me for warmth.