How volunteering over Christmas helped me appreciate life’s mundanities

As a white, middle-class journalist who signed up to volunteer with the homeless this Christmas, you’d assume this piece to be laden with clichés. A series of sob stories, perhaps, culminating in a particularly tear-jerking anecdote. The experience would really made me check my privilege and change my materialistic ways, once and for all.

Alas, if it’s that you’re looking for, I’m sure Upworthy will be happy to oblige. But if it’s pretentious words such as ‘alas’ and (hopefully) less pretentious musings on the topic that you’re after, then please read on.

Last year, Crisis served 30,400 meals over the Christmas week, alongside providing services from dental to hair-care, and activities from bingo to karaoke. I learnt this at the info session for volunteers, which illustrated just how incredible the charity’s work is. The session also equipped me with a list of things to avoid saying to the guests at the shelter – not to complain about high mortgage repayments, for instance, or to mention an upcoming cruise to the med. This was accompanied by an emotional video about the charity, which followed the paths of grateful beneficiaries.

I left the briefing feeling slightly patronised, as well as vaguely alarmed over whether I’d be able to handle the emotion of the upcoming seven hour shift. Thankfully, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, my experience brought with it less emotion than a typical episode of the X Factor. Sure, if I’d wanted sob stories I wouldn’t have had to dig far to find them, but the mood was upbeat and self-indulgence was limited.

Upon arrival at the day centre in Bermondsey it was pretty easy to pass judgement on the volunteers themselves: they’re the type who smile in response to accidental eye contact on the tube. But drawing any insightful conclusions on homelessness was much harder. It’s difficult not to blame Tory-led cuts for the 25% increase in homelessness over the past four years. But there’s more to the issue than merely lack of affordable housing and changes to benefit rules. If there was a quick fix, 112,330 people in England assumedly wouldn’t have approached their council as homeless in the past year.

So began an afternoon and evening spent in my usual fashion: making tea and chatting. I found out, through my work as a hot drink-serving ‘general volunteer’ (read: possessing no useful skill), how quickly one can spiral into homelessness. The number one cause is relationship breakdown, but factors from redundancy to substance abuse play their vicious part too. Mostly, however, I discovered how difficult it is to make any valid generalisations about the guests, seeing as they fitted no obvious mould.

Let me clarify. In the catering world I’ve had the frequent and dubious pleasure of working in, customers range from the heart-warming to the horrible. Here, too. Two men fell over themselves in eagerness to express their gratitude whilst queueing for food (it was their 16th year at Crisis at Christmas, 4th at this shelter). This contrasted with those unfortunately suffering with their mental health, the rowdy, the difficult. But few were far removed from the customers I’d come into contact with during summers spent serving fish and chips and nights spent pouring tequila shots.

Likewise, the chat up lines used by the guests also proved little different to what I’m used to hearing on a night out in Camden. There were the sweet compliments (“you’re so pretty”), the shock tactics (“I’m in love with you”) and the usual questions (“you must be from Italy?”). Again, nothing I haven’t heard before, thanks to being 22 and the owner of an ever so slightly olive complexion.

If it sounds like I’m mostly talking about men, it’s because I am. Over 90% of the guests must have been male. But there were two women in particular who impacted me. One was Sally, a 35 year old from Wales who spent hours greeting an astounding number of friends with a toothy grin, stopping only to glance proudly down at her nails. She’d just received a turquoise manicure from a volunteer and was already planning her Boxing Day haircut. Her son had recently died of throat cancer, yet she found it within her to express sympathy for my having to stand guard over the canteen’s draughty exit.

The other, a cheery Indian lady queueing for a cuppa, educated me about singing in the inspirational homeless choir, The Choir With No Name. But instead of boasting about performing in the Royal Albert Hall (as I would have done), she chose to sing the praises of her friend standing shyly nearby, and informed me what a talented guitarist he is, much to his embarrassment. As would only be appropriate, they were off to karaoke after dinner.

You might think it funny that I’ve ended up talking about music and manicures when the majority of guests come to Crisis for a simple hot meal. There’s no denying the (surprisingly tasty) food went down well. After tallying up first servings, I can confirm that well over 200 meals were demolished.

But as the anecdotes imply, it seemed that the little things on offer, from karaoke to podiatry, made the biggest difference. So, through the mundanities of serving hot drinks, I realised what volunteering teaches you the most. And forgive me, at this point, for failing to avoid clichés as promised.

But by the end of a long shift of serving drinks I was so excited to go home, make myself a cup of tea and get into bed. And if you, reading this, have the ability to do just that, therein lies what the experience teaches you to be grateful for.

Of course, I’d urge everyone to volunteer anyway. Not just because it’s good to be a bit selfless, to try and make a difference. But because when you’re so wrapped up in the Christmas madness, the happy family meals and the pressies galore, it’s so easy to forget what matters and what we take for granted. The ability to make yourself a cup of tea, paint your nails or rustle up a hot meal.

It’s all about the little things.

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