I work in a 50 bed hostel in central London where we house and support homeless men and women, many of whom have complex needs including mental and physical health issues, substance and alcohol dependency and personal histories which are full of difficulty. They are also intelligent, kind, resilient and hilarious people with amazing tales to tell. Some will be with us for a few weeks, others will be here for a number of years and for everyone Christmas is looming.
The hostel mood ebbs and flows throughout the year; often hectic, occasionally peaceful but the build-up to Christmas is different. The tension slowly creeps up into every conversation. People become less tolerant, substance use increases, mental health deteriorates. It’s full of emotional, social and financial pressures that we all feel and my clients are not immune to those. It’s all about excess; spend more, eat more, drink more. Christmas consumes us and spits us all out in January feeling bloated, low and over-spent.
Christmas is also about nostalgia; remembering all the Christmases of our childhoods. I’ve fallen in love with Christmas all over again since having children. By reliving my magical childhood and creating new traditions and memories for my kids. I can feel all the Christmases past, present and future layering up, family histories being
Some of our clients are alone in the world and for them we can provide a friendly face and someone to cheer the New Year in with. But many of our clients do have families they could spend the holiday with and although some of them are surprisingly close-by, they won’t be spending the 25th together. People are separated from the ones they love for all kinds of reasons. Like the guy whose family won’t accept his sexuality, or the young woman who chooses to be homeless because it’s preferable to being sexually abused, or the clients who just can’t face letting their family down again this year so it’s better to stay away. Those clients have a shit Christmas but they are not the ones who break my heart, at least they are somewhere safe and welcoming with support on hand. Unlike an estimated 3,500 people who will sleep rough tonight in Britain, our clients have a roof over their heads. They have made a choice to be somewhere different and hopefully better.
The people for whom Christmas is pure torture are the ones who want to be with their children but can’t. The loss is visible in their faces. I can see the weight of it upon their shoulders and hear it in their voices. Sometimes the children have been taken into care or taken away by an ex-partner and sometimes, too often, they have died, leaving their parents lost. The year is littered with birthdays and anniversaries which are difficult but Christmas seems to hit the hardest. Those are the clients I worry about the most when I go home.
And I go home to such privilege. I am so lucky to have enough to eat and to be able to complain that my boiler has broken or bicker with my family about who’s cooking what on Christmas day. But to be woken for the fifth night feed before 2am, to feel tiny hot hands clinging round your neck when your back is sore or to be made to read ‘Room on the Broom’ for the 8th time today – that is privilege. I am so lucky.
On the whole, our clients will survive Christmas, they will get through to January a bit battered and bruised by the ghosts and the excess, but they will have survived. We will have tried to give them some light relief and fun (who doesn’t love a game of bingo or a table tennis tournament?), we will have listened if they want to talk and been there if things go really wrong. The new year will bring a fresh start, new chances to make a change or pick up the phone.
If you know of someone who is sleeping rough in your area contact Streetlink for advice and support.
I’ve work with the homeless for over 6 years. I like to make things like cakes, paintings and tiny humans.