What It's Really Like Volunteering In A Soup Kitchen At Christmas
By The Debrief Posted on 26 Nov 2015
A few years ago, instead of undoing my zip to finish off a box of Celebrations, I spent Christmas volunteering at a homeless shelter in King’s Cross.
‘What a great person you are!’ I presume my friends were thinking when I told them. ‘Oh, wow..?’ was their actual response, because at the time I was job-hunting and sofa-surfing, or ‘jobless and homeless’, so the whole thing smacked of THIS IS A CRY FOR HELP.
With no tubes running, and another year gone by where I’d failed to become a bike person, I asked to crash at my friend’s empty flat so I could walk to the centre for 10am. ‘Are you sure?’, she said handing me the keys, because eating pesto pasta alone for Christmas dinner after getting back from a homeless shelter was no-one’s idea of a mentally stable way to spend the holiday.
But my parents live abroad, so naturally I needed to disguise my extreme jealously of everyone’s big family Christmases in disdain for the commercialisation of the holiday season and acts of ill-advised philanthropy. Good people volunteer at soup kitchens on Christmas Day, right?
Wrong. People like me volunteer at soup kitchens on Christmas Day. I’m generalising, sure, but I’m talking about people who only volunteer at Christmas time. I signed up to Crisis at Christmas, the dedicated Christmas wing of Crisis which provides life-saving services on all days of the year regardless of important religious births. Like many charities they have an influx of much needed volunteers at Christmas time, because ‘Christmas is a time for helping’ and ‘Christmas brings out the best in people’.
You’d be more helpful using one of your skills
I was one of these aforementioned fair-weather volunteers. I attended one shift, on Christmas Day, despite Crisis encouraging people to sign up to three. There were, if anything, too many of us unskilled volunteers. And by unskilled I mean people like me who hadn’t signed up to help with a valuable trade or skill – cooking, sewing, hairdressing, therapy, doctors, dentists, project management, entertaining – or people who couldn’t do those skills because they were children.
Like most things, it’s better to do it with friends
So there were a surprising amount of Light-up Earring Sensible Shoe sporting Samaritans arriving at the King’s Cross centre. I noticed immediately many of them had come with friends and family. That would have made a lot more sense, I reflected to no one, because I was by myself.
The Head Efficient Woman came out to welcome us and explain how the day would work, including a demonstration of how long you should take to wash your hands to prevent the spread of winter germs. The answer was ‘as long as one chorus of Jingle Bells’. So now its 10am, I’m alone, and I’m singing Jingle Bells while pretending to wash my hands.
If you volunteer, volunteer
The system was, you wait in the holding room until someone comes in and says, ‘We need eight people for the dining room.’ Then eight people would jostle forward and disappear to the dining room, where they would learn the details of the task on arrival.
The problem was you had to be assertive to be picked, and I was already feeling like quite the loner. I sat quietly for a while, watching people jump up enthusiastically for mysterious jobs around the building, figuring eventually they would only be me and a man I’d dubbed three-fleece Gary, and he was blatantly guarding the biscuit table. But then my plan failed because people were returning from their jobs and jumping up for second jobs, lapping me in a sad race they didn’t know we were in.
I’d spent almost an hour in a room on Christmas morning nowhere near the action. And by action, I mean homeless people. This wasn’t what I imagined. I thought I’d be ladling broth into a bowl with jolly women called Carol and Bev, while making charming remarks, wishing people a Merry Christmas, and winking as I snuck an extra bread roll on to an old man’s plate.
It might not be all action
Eventually, I pushed my way forward to take a job. It turned out to be toilet duty, which was both not as bad and more boring than I’d thought. It consisted of sitting on a chair near the toilets, and I have no recollection of its purpose. I felt a bit annoyed that I wasn’t spending my time more constructively and that it would be inappropriate to amuse myself on my iPhone. I was here for about 20 minutes, before being replaced by another volunteer and asked to return to the holding zone.
It makes sense as a system – there are lots of jobs to be done, and it gives the volunteers some variety. I would have spent the rest of my day doing this if there hadn’t been a fire alarm. The irony of a homeless shelter evacuating everyone onto the cold winter street had not gone unnoticed. Once every possible variation on the joke, ‘I thought they were meant to be helping people off the streets’ had been made, I found myself mingling.
Prepare your small talk
It hadn’t really occurred to me that I would be no good at this. I’m not great at small talk, and here I had no common ground to lead with. Even our national go-to ice-breaker of bad weather felt out of bounds, because what if they were living in it?
I was terrified of saying something un-PC and I don’t know anything whatsoever about what it’s like to be homeless. Sure, at the time, I didn’t have a home to call my own, but I did have the keys to a management consultant’s Islington flat.
Prepare to be quite bad
People who regularly volunteer understand the needs and experiences of vulnerable people living in temporary accommodation. Not one-off do-gooders like me. This is what I was thinking about on my way back to the holding zone, when I spotted the games area. There was a man sat alone opening a jigsaw puzzle in prime seating for the best show of the day – the karaoke.
I looked at my old toilet post, and back to the 500-piece jigsaw of an ivy-covered cottage. As quick as you can say, ‘Did you fail to report to duty as a volunteer at the homeless shelter?’ I was helping Phil find the edge pieces. I must have spent about two hours with Phil. We had something in common and it was called, ‘looking for the top of this white fence’.
And I did manage to chat with him about his life. He was disappointed because they got better socks the year before. Did I support Arsenal? No. Are you going to visit the nail salon? Yes? Oh, OK you’re not joking. I was even able to abate my curiosity with questions about how his housing worked and how he became self-sufficient after sleeping rough.
He was honest and open about his substance abuse in the past, and about not being in touch with his family. Of course, in the fantasy version of this story, Phil wells up and says, ‘Thank you, I really needed a companion to talk to’. But that’s extremely patronising and we’ve already established I’m the lonely one here.
In reality, my shift finished around the third rendition of Eye of the Tiger, we said bye and I was replaced by a 14 year old.
I can’t say I’m proud of my day at the soup kitchen – which is in itself a misnomer of a title because it was actually a huge complex with fantastic services available – but it was definitely a real eye-opener to the tireless work of homeless charities, and how our focus on charitable giving at Christmas could actually be masking an issue that needs our attention all year round.
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.
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