If you are involved with charity which helps people affected by homelessness, then you will be bracing yourself for the busiest time of the year.
Whilst there remains huge challenges to reduce the numbers of people sleeping rough, the busyness of this season is not necessarily because the number of people coming to the services increases. Nor is it just because cold weather increases people’s needs, after all, its often colder in January or February.
The main reason for the extra work is because December sees a massive increase in public interest in homelessness. Fundraising opportunities, volunteer enquiries and interest from companies go through the roof at this time of year.
Of course this offers some great opportunities which charities understandably make the most of. But I think we need to question this annual bulge of sentimentality.
When I was at the West London Mission, I remember receiving a call a few days before Christmas from a well-to-do woman who clearly expected me to be grateful to facilitate her offer of festive philanthropy. Despite not previously being involved in our work, she phoned me and said:
‘Right, on Christmas day, my family and I are free to help between 11am and 1pm but then we have to leave. Tell us where to be and what you want us to do.’
She spoke as if we were there to provide her with a drive-through charity experience which would enable her family to enjoy their Christmas dinner more. She was distinctly unimpressed, and slightly offended, when I explained that it would not be possible to accommodate her one-off hit of generosity.
Hollywood does not help either. The 2019 film Last Christmas (starring Emilia Clarke) portrays a homeless shelter over Christmas in the most sentimental way possible. The storyline uses a shelter as a backdrop to convey kindness and good values. But the people using the service are portrayed with as much depth as cartoon characters. They are simply props for sentimental benevolence.
The film used St Mary’s Church in Marylebone as the base of this fictional shelter. Ironically, the real homeless centre that West London Mission ran is literally a one minute walk around the corner but none of their producers or researchers ever spoke to us.
Sadly these portrayals are vastly more popular than films like Hector (2015). This is also set in a homeless shelter at Christmas but is far more real and authentic. Hector is not an easy watch but it focuses on the real issues wrapped up with homelessness: tragedy, complex family relationships, mental health, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Peter Mullan plays the main character with tender sensitivity. You learn about the tragedy which led him to ‘life on the road’. You see the struggles his family has with his behaviour. The well-meaning nervousness of the earnest volunteers and the slightly wearied shelter manager are portrayed with subtle accuracy.
In one scene, two guests come back drunk, disrupt a visiting choir’s rendition of Abide with Me and chaos ensues. It reminded me of a Christmas day in a shelter I managed when someone decided to urinate in the tea urn. It sparked a similar furore (see my review of Hector).
Compassionate and powerful
Rachel Woolf is the Founder and Director of the charity Street Storage. In the Annual Service to commemorate people who have died homeless this year, Rachel shared a testimony of one of the men she knew well who had died in 2022.
Her words struck me as compassionate, authentic and powerful and she gave me permission to share here (the name of the person has been changed):
Henri died in May of this year. He was the kind of person who you never forgot, for all kinds of wonderful and difficult reasons.
While it is easy to say what was true – that he was a character, that he had a huge grin, and that he often seemed unshakably positive despite his circumstances, I want to use this space to also be honest.
Henri struggled. He had a tough, chaotic life – a life that ended too soon. He truly had a good heart. He was a good friend, but he wasn’t always personable, and he wasn’t always polite. He wasn’t always grinning and he wasn’t always positive.
I believe he truly wanted to heal and come through his trauma and his addiction. But I also believe that, for years, he seemed – as an ex-colleague of mine rightly put it – unreachable.
And so today, while I remember him for his huge grin, I will also remember his death as a reminder to keep fighting to try to reach unreachable people, and to reach them as people. Not as cases to be managed, or outcomes to put on funding applications, but as people.
Rest in peace Henri.
These words convey the complex and tragic reality of rough sleeping. They come from a perspective of real life experience and authentic relationships.
People affected by homelessness are neither angels nor devils. They are human. Real people whose lives have often been terribly scared by poverty, trauma, ill-health and addiction.
Whether its December, March or July, people affected by homelessness do not need harsh judgement – but nor do they need soppy sentimentality. All year round, they need people around them who offer them the grace and truth which helps them on the road to recovery.