I'd heard from volunteering friends that Crisis at Christmas was a fantastic project supporting homeless men and women every year.
With support from more than 10,000 volunteers, homeless guests can enjoy hot food, a shower, a haircut, clean clothing and clothing repair at the centres. They can also access services including general healthcare, a dentist and physiotherapy.
Most people who sign up for Crisis at Christmas - ideally volunteers do a minimum of two eight-hour shifts - will be general volunteers, and take their instructions from more seasoned volunteers known as key volunteers.
Then there are the activities, entertainments and community partnership volunteers. These can range from hosting arts and craft classes and dance and fitness sessions, to giving lectures on a range of subjects or running lively karaoke sessions, and much more.
Sign up with a friend
My sister and I signed up on the spur of the moment as general volunteers on one of the last available eight-hour shifts.
I was impressed at how flexible the organisation was, that they were happy to take us with just a day's notice, and at how straightforward the sign-up process for Crisis at Christmas was.
The website even had the facility to sign up with a friend - by giving your friend's reference number, you can apply to work on the same shift together.
We were allocated places at The Gate, one of the few centres in London that provides overnight accommodation for its guests. The Gate is also one of the few centres that allows alcohol.
We were warned that as a result we might be more likely to encounter antisocial behaviour, and because we had one of the last shifts, the guests might be feeling emotional at the thought of having to return to the streets the following day.
It was a bleak picture and we were apprehensive, but we knew we could count on each other for support if necessary.
The eight-hour Crisis shift
We arrived promptly at the start of our 3pm shift and were signed in at reception and presented with our badges. The centre changes location every year - this time it was located in an old office block that was due to be torn down.
Thanks to the enthusiasm and creativity of earlier volunteers, the building had been transformed from a dilapidated site to a warm and vibrant venue filled with colourful murals and welcoming signs.
We were taken through an induction process that included a talk on health and safety, which included advice on what to do with any used needles we encountered, a run-through of the services on offer that day, and a rough timetable.
After a quick tour of the sleeping areas, activity areas, cafe and dining room, we were set to work on the clothing donations.
An appeal to volunteers earlier in the week led to a late surge of donations, all of which had to be sorted and discreetly distributed to the guests judged to be most in need, which was both logistically and emotionally challenging.
While there was a good supply of coats, shirts and T-shirts, we noticed there weren't nearly enough shoes, trainers and boots to meet demand.
Popular but in short supply were rucksacks and sleeping bags, too. As well as clothing donations, volunteers were also encouraged to bring snack offerings to put in the cafe.
At 8pm we had a break and, with all the guests and volunteers, were given a nutritious meal in the dining room, also cooked by volunteers.
Afterwards we were stationed supervising the area by the shift office, and had a long and interesting chat with an older guest who drew up a chair alongside. He seemed calm and content after a week of being cared for, and was very positive about his time with Crisis.
Other volunteers played board games with guests and gently pointed them in the direction of the advice services on offer.
We had been advised to dress informally for the shift, and as such there were times when the only way we could tell who was a volunteer was to look for an identity badge.
It soon became clear from the range of characters we met that homelessness can happen to almost anyone. It was great to hear that some of the volunteers were themselves former guests whose circumstances had improved so much that they wanted to come back to support others.
What to take to your Crisis shift
I'd recommend taking the following to your first shift:
- packets of biscuits, chocolate or other snacks to donate to the Crisis cafe for guests and volunteers
- any clothing donations, especially boots, trainers, backpacks and waterproof coats
- a pen and small notepad to make notes during the induction or when you're being briefed for a task
Crisis success stories
We finished our shift with a debrief from the key volunteers. We were thanked for our help and informed about the success stories of the week, which included helping some guests find more permanent accommodation and putting others back in touch with their families.
The eight hours passed quickly. It was reassuring to see how much the guests appeared to have benefited from the project.
Although the programme only lasted a week, it was possible to see how seeds for real change were planted in that time and would likely bear fruit in the year to come. I definitely plan to return - it was a great introduction to volunteering.
Rachael Smith, deputy head of Crisis at Christmas, said: "This year's Crisis at Christmas was bigger than ever, with close to 4,500 guests welcomed for good food, good company and access to vital services at our centres in London, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
"This was made possible by our incredible team of volunteers, whose generosity and commitment brought some much-needed relief to those for whom Christmas can be the hardest time of all. With homelessness rising, sadly their support is more important than ever."
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Article provided by NHS Choices