“Can you wash these apples please?”
6.30 am Sunday morning at a homeless shelter. It’s the second week that this has been open and this week there are eleven guests. Three who stayed the previous week have found permanent accommodation, so a couple of faces are new. They are all fast asleep but it is time to wake them up. A big pot of tea is made and the lady who cooks the breakfasts has arrived allowing three volunteers who stayed overnight to go home.
Most of the guests are men so they sleep in the largest part of the main hall with the three ladies in their own room and the four overnight shift people in an adjoining room. The overnight shift works like a ship’s watch with 2 hours on per person. Sleeping rough means poor quality sleep among other issues, so a warm bed inside a permanent building is important for health. Most surprising news item over the Christmas period is 15 Famous people who were once homeless making me wonder, Is there a British version?
The manager of the soup kitchen has asked me to transfer my efforts to the media side of things (watch this space) but I manage to help out at the Christmas dinner attended by over 40 guests. Starting at 6.30 pm there is a piano player, gospel singers and karaoke. The portions are generous and far less than usual is left uneaten. The cooks have been in since 9am and the food is magnificent. Hearing two tango tunes reminds me that I miss it but when I try to thank the man tickling the ivories, his eyes are closed – wrapped up in his music and he doesn’t hear me.
This transfer leaves a free evening and after weeks of silence, I am asked to help with the Sunday early morning slot at the Shelter. There are usually six groups, typically made up of: Cooking – 2 people, Evening – 4, Overnight – 3, Breakfast – 2, Clear Up – 2 plus 2 Laundry people who will return the washed clothes no later than three days later.
Working in the homeless shelter is more structured than the soup kitchen with a formal training session and a character reference being required. The reference is no problem, but I am busy on the days when there is a training session so I start without the training.
Volunteers for my second week include three young Dutch guys from Athletes in Action a charity I have never heard of.
Early Birds get the same
A couple of guests are up quickly while others prefer to spend a few minutes extra in bed. After a wash/shower, they drift back and I make sure the tea pot is kept hot and full. One lady wants mint tea while a couple want coffee. The breakfasts appear steadily and once most guests have eaten, we are given our own as it is considered important that volunteers sit down and eat with them. One lady finds that 7.30 am is too early for a cooked breakfast, hence the request for the apples.
Having been fed, the guests disappear by 8am, two of them on bicycles and it’s clear up time. Laundry goes in two baskets, inflatable mattresses are stacked and deflated in one room, pillows and bedding upstairs, beds folded up and stacked, tables put away, chairs stacked and litter collected. Halfway through clearing up one former guest turns up, but he is too late for breakfast.
Details of the shelter for the next night are given to the guests and once the church hall is swept and tidy, it is homeward bound when most of London is still in bed or maybe just getting up.
If you fancy volunteering yourself, best start at your local church, local council or a volunteer organisation There are three categories of help you can provide: resources like food or clothing, money, or your time.
Happy New Year