Kevin, carrying his life in a plastic bag, thanks me for remembering his name. “It makes me feel human,” he says. Another man with a big, toothless grin tells me that having a hot shower has made him feel “lighter”. He’s been sleeping in a doorway for the past 15 weeks.
This year, I found the real spirit of Christmas in a school academy in South London that was transformed into a day centre for rough sleepers and people stuck in temporary accommodation over the festive period.
I’d signed up to be a general volunteer for Crisis at Christmas, the charity that helps homeless people in the UK. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the charity’s Pimlico Day Centre. There, people sought respite from the harsh realities of homelessness. Instead of a street, doorway, tent or hostel, they came to a safe place to spend time, eat, and have a hot shower.
It felt particularly important to volunteer this year. I’ve written so much about the cost of living crisis as a money writer for Rest Less and, unsurprisingly, 2023 was the worst year for homelessness on record. Nearly a quarter of a million households (242,000) in England are currently experiencing the “worst forms” of homelessness, including rough sleeping, sofa-surfing and unsuitable temporary accommodation, according to the latest Crisis research. Every time I’ve been out, I’ve passed people in sleeping bags or cardboard boxes on the street – a stark reminder of just how many people are living in unstable and unsafe conditions.
If you’ve ever considered volunteering for Crisis at Christmas, but don’t know how to sign up or what this involves, here’s a rundown of my experience.
What is Crisis at Christmas?
Crisis at Christmas is an annual appeal in the UK that helps to provide meals, shelter, support and companionship to those experiencing homelessness.
This year, Crisis took over three hotels in London to provide accommodation to nearly 600 rough sleepers over the festive period. The charity also set up and ran three-day centres to enable a further 2,100 people to access the support and services it has to offer. These services form part of a broader nationwide operation, which supported over 7,000 people facing homelessness over Christmas.
The ‘guests’ who attend the service are offered support such as hot meals, health and wellbeing services (including opticians and hairdressers), and specialist advice on benefits and housing. Once signed up, people can also access Crisis’ year-round service to help them to leave homelessness behind for good.
What are the different volunteer roles?
I’d thought about signing up to Crisis at Christmas for several years. But I mistakenly believed that Crisis primarily needed volunteers with specific skills such as physiotherapists or doctors, or who had plenty of experience in the role – so what could I offer? In reality, Crisis at Christmas relies on thousands of volunteers to run the service and there are roles you can sign up for, which don’t require any specialist skills.
If, like me, you sign up to be a general volunteer, you’ll first be instructed on how things run, and then rotated around the different jobs during your shift. All youneed is an open mind and willingness to throw yourself into whatever needs doing. There are other roles you can choose if you wish, including being an activity volunteer, helping to arrange anything from Bingo to football tournaments, or working as a kitchen assistant.
The lead volunteers at the centres and hotels are those volunteers who’ve worked for Crisis at Christmas for many years. They are responsible for setting up andhanding out tasks to the hundreds of volunteers at each centre.
What services are on offer to guests?
At the centre I volunteered at on Christmas Eve, there were eye tests, haircuts, and a nail bar on offer to those who visited. And, later in the week, there was a foot clinic, physiotherapy, and a healthcare clinic.
The idea is that, in just a few days, guests can do everything that might take them months to arrange or save for on the street. On Christmas day, there was also a clothing store, where guests could make requests for anything from shoes, gloves, and scarves, to rucksacks. But it’s not just these services on offer. Activities – such as classes, puzzles, a football tournament, and trips to the Royal Academy of Arts and Science Museum – were offered too.
What happened during my shifts?
I arrived by 9.30am for both my shifts, and was handed a white volunteer badge on which to write my name. The few people wearing green badges were the senior volunteers, who set up and run the centre. They are also there to give you your tasks and answer any questions you might have during the day.
My first day started with a volunteers’ briefing, where we were told how to behave, and the various rules, such as not taking photos of guests. Other rules included not using your phone whilst on the floor, not making any promises to guests, and making sure your badge was visible at all times.
I wore jeans, comfy trainers, and my brightest Christmas jumper for my shifts. We were told that a big part of our job was simply to interact with the guests. Some want to talk and have nobody to listen to them. The task leader said there’s a ‘Crisis’ effect that lasts for weeks after the centres close, when the guests feel that London is a kinder place.
I took a packed lunch and left my belongings in the volunteers’ room during the day. I was in and out of here a lot during each shift, between duties. It’s here that you’re given your next task by a senior volunteer, with each lasting from around half an hour to several hours. Now and again, someone would run into the volunteers’ area and shout: “Anyone speak Bulgarian?” or “Anyone speak Albanian?” Amazingly, there was almost always a volunteer who could help.
My first job following the briefing was ‘gap duty’, which was basically guarding doorways and making sure nobody went through them. At first, I was extremely nervous about going out into the guest area. It took a few hours to relax into the role, and several guests came and chatted to me while I was on gap duty. But just sitting and staring felt a little useless. In the afternoon, I was keen for a role that enabled me to be more involved. So, I became a waitress, taking lunch orders (fish or vegetable pie, followed by apple crumble), and serving the guests. The hours flew by as the room filled with hundreds of guests. Some smiled, asking me to sit down for a chat. Part of my job was simply to listen and be present. I finished my first shift making goody bags filled with donated supermarket food.
By my second shift on Christmas Day, I’d got to grips with how things worked. I put my hand up to volunteer for the first task, which was set up and library duty. I spoke to several guests about their favourite authors and stories. One showed me the memoir Gutter to Glory that he was reading about a homeless woman who’d ended up speaking in Parliament.
It turned into a hectic day with many different jobs. Other tasks involved serving tea and coffee, sorting the stockroom, handing out crackers, security and shower room door duty.
There were plenty of other tasks that volunteers could do, too, such as making the food, cleaning, washing up, and taking charge of luggage check-in, where the guests left their belongings during the day. Volunteers handed out numbered tickets and logged the number alongside guests’ registration wristbands.
Time flew by, particularly on Christmas Day when I felt more confident in my role. As a first-timer, I found the shifts exhausting, and overwhelming at times, but it was extremely rewarding to hear how many had attended and been fed in the end of day debrief at 5.30pm.
The Pimlico Day Centre was at capacity on Christmas Eve, with 246 guests that day alone – all of whom were experiencing homelessness or stuck in temporary accommodation, such as hotels or people’s homes where they were couch-surfing. Guests were welcomed from 24-28th December between 10am and 5pm.
Every guest had a story about how they came to be there but this was a question we were advised not to ask. Besides, the answer would rarely be straightforward. Whether their circumstances were the result of mental illness, a relationship breakdown, or because they are a stranded migrant, these are people who are struggling to find society’s safety net. Some told me they had been physically attacked on the street, urinated on, or had items thrown at them.
Despite their dire straits, many of the guests showed gratitude and joy for the smallest things, which felt truly humbling. A guest carrying pot noodles in a plastic bag told a fellow volunteer he was luckier than many. “At least we’re not being bombed, eh”, he said with a chuckle.
A pair of homeless brothers spent most of Christmas Eve doing a jigsaw together. An elderly man who spoke seven languages said how wonderful Crisis had been to him and his late mother. Some were barely audible or didn’t want to talk at all and slept with their head on the table. Some guests were in groups or couples, others alone.
Regular volunteers told me one of the saddest things was seeing the same guests back year after year, which means they hadn’t managed to find a home. When guests collected their luggage at the end of the day, it was upsetting to see them heading out into the dark night. A few rough sleepers were given rooms in Crisis at Christmas hotels, but most were at capacity.
As a first-timer, I felt in the minority. There were 130 helpers of all ages on Christmas Eve, and many told me they’d volunteered for Crisis at Christmas for years. Dozens were in their 50s, 60s and beyond. “It’s addictive,” was a common response when I asked why they kept coming back. “Crisis is my family now,” said a woman who’d been volunteering for a decade.
Some volunteers had strained relationships with their families. Some were couples without children wanting to do something different at Christmas. It seemed that something special was bringing these volunteers from all walks of life together.
One woman was there with her brother and parents. She’d volunteered for Crisis at Christmas with her family since she was 18 – she was now 30. “It’s our family’s festive tradition,” she said. Another woman said she’d just recovered from cancer and wanted to give something back to society after the kindness she’d received from NHS doctors and nurses.
A single mum told me she was volunteering because her daughter was with her dad for Christmas this year, and because homelessness was an issue close to her heart. “My brother used to be homeless,” she said. “I haven’t got any savings and who knows what could happen if I missed my mortgage payments.” Some volunteers used to be homeless themselves, and after being helped by Crisis wanted to return the favour.
The centre’s security guard had previously worked as a nightclub bouncer. “‘But I’ve never been so scared as I was on my first shift for Crisis. I just didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I’ve found that some of the volunteers need Crisis as much as the guests – for one reason or another, they don’t like Christmas.”
How to sign up for Crisis at Christmas
It’s simple to sign up to volunteer for Crisis, but you’ll need to be quick if you want to work shifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. If you’re volunteering in a day centre you’ll do eight-hour shifts, but you can choose between morning, evening, or overnight shifts in hotels.
I signed up as a volunteer in early October, on the Crisis at Christmas website. You’re required to sign up for at least two shifts. In hindsight, I wished I’d spaced my shifts out over the week, rather than done two consecutive days. It’s tiring as a first-timer in particular and definitely takes it out of you both physically and mentally.
Ultimately, though, the experience left me feeling that it was what Christmas should be all about. It was both rewarding and challenging in equal measure. Next time, I’ll sign up for shifts later in the week, as I was told they’re usually down on volunteers by the 27th when the festive spirit is starting to run dry.
In the end, it’s both the volunteers and guests who gain something amazing from the work Crisis at Christmas does. After all, the only difference between somebody who’s homeless and has a home could be something as simple as a period of ill health, job loss, or the end of a relationship.
How you can donate to Crisis at Christmas
Crisis relies on financial gifts to be able to support the homeless. In 2023, the charity asked specifically for people to make donations of £29.73, which is enough to provide food, clothing and accommodation for one guest over Christmas. If you want to make a donation, you can do so by visiting the Crisis website at crisis.org.uk.
Aside from money, the charity needs donations of clothes, food, and books. When I left the day centre, those in charge were asking for men’s backpacks and shoes in particular. So, if you can’t volunteer or afford to give financially, consider what you could drop off at your local Crisis at Christmas centre that might help.
Something we can all do, even if we don’t have anything to give or time to spare, is to please look every homeless person in the eye and smile. If my volunteering experience at Crisis at Christmas taught me anything, it’s just how much people need kindness from others.
If you’re interested in volunteering in other roles, head over to our volunteering homepage where you can search for opportunities near you.