A few years ago I did some volunteer work for Crisis, when I helped out at one of their shelters for a few days over Christmas (working the night shift). Since I don't have any family commitments at that time of year, I figured that I might as well make myself useful, rather than just watching TV. Living in London, I do see quite a few people begging, particularly around the Underground, and so I do feel a bit guilty for not giving them money, even though there are signs up saying "Professional beggars operate on this station - please don't encourage them by giving money". Anyway, I went along with high hopes that I would be able to have meaningful contact with the people there, and see beyond the stereotypes.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite go as I'd expected. I'd agreed to do three nights - the 24th to the 26th of December. My first shift therefore started on Christmas Eve, and finished on Christmas Day. I was hoping that it would be quite a friendly atmosphere, but some of the "guests" (that's how we referred to the homeless people staying there) were quite hostile. One guy walked up to me and said "You think you're helping? You can take your so-called help and go fuck yourself!" I guess that "Happy Christmas" would get a bit boring after a while... All the volunteers were working in pairs, usually one male and one female, so I had to run interference a few times when the male guests started getting lechy (e.g. "Give us a kiss, darling, it's Christmas"); this didn't really make me too popular! I've often heard people describe beggars as parasites, and I was hoping that by meeting them I'd learn otherwise. However, some of what I observed just lent weight to that accusation. For example, we had a payphone in the hall, which used BT phonecards. The idea was that we'd been donated some of these cards, and so when people wanted to make calls, we'd give them a card, then they'd give it back once they'd finished. When I was on that duty, it was quite wearing, as the guests generally wanted to keep the cards for themselves. I kept telling them that I wasn't trying to get at them personally, but that our supply was limited, and we didn't have enough for everyone to have a card each. In any case, the only place they'd be useful was at the phone, so it made sense logistically to keep them there. One guy threatened to break my neck, but I didn't back down, and finally he said to me "You want this card?" I said yes, so he bent it in half and threw it on the floor. Later on I saw him fighting one of the other guests. The theory was that violence wouldn't be tolerated, but in practice the shift leaders would just give the troublemakers a cigarette to calm them down.
The drugs issue was also interesting. I was sent a small handbook before I started, which gave advice on what to do. Most of it was quite straightforward, e.g. wear warm, durable clothes, rather than dressing for style. (One of the girls brought ski boots along, which I envied when I was on duty outside!) Some of the advice was a bit more worrying. Basically, lots of people who live on the street are drug addicts, and so I was warned that I might find needles lying around. In this case, the policy was that one person should stand with it, and their partner should find a shift leader to pick it up - I shouldn't pick it up myself. They also said that when clearing bedding away, we should pick up a sheet by the corner and shake it out, rather than just bundling it up, in case there are any needles left in there. This was when I started to worry... When I actually got there, we had a briefing at the start of each shift. The leader said that officially the policy was "no drugs". However, being practical he didn't expect addicts to give up for a few days, so they just asked people to inject themselves in the toilets, rather than doing it in the main hall. Also, lots (about 95%) of the guests smoked, so one of the important duties was fire-watching; we basically had to make sure that they didn't fall asleep and set their bedding on fire. Trying to evacuate everyone would not be fun! According to the shift leader, we would probably smell some marijuana - his attitude was that it kept the guests mellow, so he was quite happy for them to do it. If it bothered us, we could ask to swap areas with someone else - apparently this happened a few years ago, and there was no shortage of volunteers to take over that duty! Obviously I didn't smell anything, so I'm not sure what I was inhaling while I was there.
By the end of my first shift, I was very glad that it was over, and extremely disillusioned with the whole thing. I was on the point of chucking it in, but I decided to go back for the other two nights, in order to honour my commitment. There were a lot of people who did give up after the first night, though.
Actually, things improved a bit on the second night. For one thing, my body clock had adjusted. I didn't take any time off over Christmas, so on the first night I'd worked during the day, then went on to the shift in the evening. I then slept through all of Christmas Day, so I was more alert that night. I also felt a lot more confident, since I'd been through it all once already; maybe this was evident in the way I acted. Anyway, the guests were quieter that night, and most of them went straight to sleep. When I was on fire watch, it was quite soporific sitting there in the dark, with everyone snoring around; I had to make an effort to stay awake! I don't know if any of this was due to the "smoky atmosphere" :) I also found out (by talking to the guests) that not all of them actually live on the streets; some of them live in hostels and bedsits. I figured that if they'd choose to stay at the shelter, which wasn't exactly luxurious (rows of campbeds about six inches apart), then we must be doing something right. It's the idea of the silent majority - the people that I'd noticed the first night were the noisy ones, rather than the ones who went to sleep. I was chatting to one of the shift leaders, and he said that to some extent the guests were just giving me a hard time because I was paying attention to them. It wasn't that they were annoyed with me, but they just wanted to vent, and I listened, whereas most people in London will look the other way and pretend that they don't exist. It's not quite the kind of help that I'd planned to give, but live and learn.
When we got debriefed at the end of the second night, the leaders were impressed at how quiet the guests had been, compared to previous years. Basically, when they're on the street, they have a high chance of being urinated over, or being set on fire, which is why they're often drunk; it's the only way they can relax enough to sleep. Alcohol was off-limits at the shelter, so they would only sleep if they trusted us to protect them and watch over them. I think that's pretty cool - I've felt a calling to protect in the past, and I think that this is a nice way of doing it, as compared to the vigilante route. On the third night, we were warned that the guests would be a bit rowdy - basically, they would have got a double giro before Christmas, which they'd have spent on alcohol, and they'd now be getting withdrawal symptoms. However, it was another quiet night, which was good. All in all, it was a rewarding experience, and I'm glad I did it.
I had an interesting chat with one of the shift leaders while I was there, about the merits of giving money to beggars. Some people have advised me against this, on the grounds that they'll just spend it in alcohol. The alternative is to ask them what they want, and then buy it for them. The shift leader had a different attitude - he was quite happy to give them money for alcohol, on the grounds that they're better off drinking beer than meths. According to him, there are plenty of places that give food to the homeless, so that's not a problem for them. One thing that Crisis does during the year is a clothing run - they deliberately don't do a food run, because there are so many other people doing that. Anyway, the guy I spoke to reckoned that lots of people don't think through what they're saying when they have reasons not to give money. While there is the concept of the professional beggar who earns more than someone with a job, it isn't an easy thing to do, and so he said that most of the people who condemn it ought to try it first. It's food for thought, but I think that in general I'd rather give money to a central organisation, who can make better use of it, e.g. building shelters.
More recently, I've noticed some trouble outside the house. I'm currently living on a former council estate - some of the houses have been sold to estate agents, and are now being rented out privately. In other cases, there are families who've lived here since the estate was first built. Anyway, when I first moved in here, I wasn't bothered by this - while these estates have a bit of a dodgy reputation, it seemed peaceful enough. More recently though, there have been conflicts outside, in the car park area. Last week, a big group of people were shouting at each other, and pushing each other around. Someone called the police, who sent round 3 cars and a van, but everything had calmed down by the time they arrived. Then today (about an hour ago) there was an argument, where a man was shouting at a woman (with a few of her friends). He was saying "Are you a rude girl? Take off those trainers, I don't want you wearing them. I'm going to fucking kill you!" Meanwhile, a couple of other guys (presumably his friends) were restraining him. This then escalated to the point where a post was broken off a fence, at which point the police arrived, and chased the guy responsible down the road.
Now, in fairness, the conflicts I've seen only seem to involve people who already know each other. And it may be that it's mainly posturing, rather than any actual serious intent to be violent (although the shouting is still a nuisance on its own). And I think I'm more aware of it now that I'm at home all day (since lectures have finished in college), and that it's warm enough for people to want to stand around outside. However, I think that people who stay at home all day are likely to be either students or unemployed (there are obviously exceptions, for people who do bar-work in the evenings, etc.). And from listening to them, I'm guessing that they fall into the unemployed category. So, while they are (presumably) claiming benefits from society, I'm not sure what benefits society gets from them.
Now, I'm not saying "all people who fall into category X are scum of the earth". I'm just disappointed when I discover that there is actually some truth in the attitudes that I'd previously rejected as being prejudiced.