So December comes around again. For me that means Crisis Open Christmas, or COC1.
Crisis is a charity that works for and with the homeless in the UK. I came across the charity in 2001 when, not spending Christmas in the comfort of my family home for once, I wanted to do something worthwhile.
As a budding entrepreneur (not wholly out of choice; I struggled for years to be a good employee, only to realise that I have a fundamental problem with taking orders from people who are driven solely by financial gain and/or their own self-importance) and having done my time signing on for unemployment benefit, I know only too well how easy it is to slip into the downward spiral of disillusionment and exclusion.
I am lucky in that I have an amazing support network around me without which I would certainly have hit the streets (thanks everyone!).
While Crisis is not the only organisation that works with London’s homeless, I was looking for a truly effective charity that did not have links to any particular religion (I might write about my views on religion one day, if and when I have worked out what they are!). At first sight Crisis appeared to fit the bill.
I spoke about volunteering to two excellent Colombian friends, Sylvia and Andres, who were also had some spare time during Christmas week and before I knew it they had signed up for the “drinkers shelter”2 – to this day I don’t know if this was a comment on my own drinking habit – I duly signed up for a couple of afternoon shifts and before I knew it I was there pretty much every day, using my language skills to sort out a young Swedish couple who had had their money stolen on arrival at Stansted Airport and ended up resorting to sleeping in the shelter while they waited for their return flight home.
I recall that I overheard two Swedes discussing the safety of the digital camcorder that they had stowed in the luggage store and figured that perhaps they were not in the safest place. Luckily the Swedish Church in London is a particularly compassionate haven and it was a simple task to persuade them to look after the unfortunate pair.
I have been hooked ever since.
In 2002 I was made a Key Volunteer, which means giving up several weekends a year for (excellent) training sessions relating to issues that relate directly to homelessness (mental health, drug use and abuse), the running of the various shelters at the “Open” (policies for dealing with Guests, team-building), as well as informing us of the many different services that Crisis offers throughout the year – I am a member of Crisis Skylight (they did say Vols were welcome to sign up) and attended a very good introductory course to film-making last year.
Being a Key Vol also means that I get to boss people about!
Actually, that’s what I find so refreshing about Crisis; there is NO BOSSING ABOUT! The operations of the entire organisation are based on respect for others; take the Open, for instance. COC is a massive military-esque operation that is currently run by an amazing chap called Maff Potts. Indeed, COC would not exist at all if it weren’t for the amazing people who are behind it.
I believe that this year Crisis is running six shelters, the largest of which (“the Main”, where I generally work on the morning shift) slept close to 650 people one night last year and topped 500 for at least three. If you reckon on three times that number of people visiting the shelter during the day but are able to accommodate themselves at night, you will begin to see where the estimated £450,000 in donations and donated goods goes.
Every one of the Guests at the Main is given access to the facilities available – if memory serves me right, two years ago this included thirty-seven different services ranging from IT training, to haircutting through three hot meals (itself a vast undertaking), advice on re-housing and drug dependency to access to fully equipped medical and dental staff.
In the evenings Guests are offered a whole range of entertainments (if you have ever played soccer against a bunch of ex-squaddies, you’ll know that it hurts) before the beds are put out, the lights are switched off and overnight Guests go to sleep.
That doesn’t mean that the day’s job is done, however, as some people can’t or don’t want to sleep, so the lights are left on in one part of the shelter and Volunteers carry on with perhaps the most important of their many tasks: talking to people who may not have had the opportunity to express their thoughts to another soul for many months.
The night shift also monitor the sleeping bays in an attempt to protect the property of Guests who have chosen not to stow all of their belongings in the luggage store – sadly, every year sees a handful of thefts, particularly during the hours of darkness.
Moreover, it is often during the night that some of the most vulnerable cases are identified.
By the time the morning shift comes on, there is always a list of actions waiting to be dealt with once the appropriate professionals arrive. Effective handover briefings are crucial.
Morning shift also means that the clothes store opens for the day. This, along with the dog kennel, where the fabulous Andy (AKA “Dogs”) and her team stay in a makeshift hut for the week minding a limited number of Guests’ faithful companions, is one of the most valuable (and most contentious) services that the Open offers. Several dozen people queue for hours hoping for of a change of clothes in the knowledge that they will probably have to return to London’s wet and windy streets in a few days and that proper clothing may be the difference between life and death.
It can be an explosive situation, especially as the clothes available are distinctly limited and have to be rationed in order to help as many people as possible.
For as long as I have been working at the Main, the clothing store has been run by Martyn and Lynette according to a strict set of rules: Martyn hands out tickets to Guests who have been queuing patiently for at least a couple of hours. He has to spot ‘repeat visitors’ who try to game the system by collecting two sets of clothes – a few years ago, according to long-standing Vols, it was fairly commonplace for certain Guests to fill up shopping trolleys with new clothes, which they then sold on.
In order to prevent any altercations, Martyn is accompanied by two of the… er… larger, more experienced Vols; for the past couple of years that has meant a chap called Andy and myself for the morning shift (if for any reason Andy reads this, I sincerely hope he is recovered enough to work this year).
Certainly, without the cooperation of Guests and Volunteers alike, COC would be a powder keg waiting for the fuse to be lit. The reason for its success is, in my opinion, the result of some of the most foresighted management techniques around, two of the most essential are respect, delegation and effective support.
As I have already mentioned, respect for people is fundamental, especially as so many of the Guests and indeed the Vols cannot or will not tolerate being ordered about for no good reason. Shift leaders and their most capable assistants (“Green Badges”) are constantly on the lookout for potential trouble spots while asking for and taking on board feedback from Guests and Vols alike.
Where there is not an obvious reason for something, it is changed if it will make the operation flow more smoothly, in this way ‘management’ continually earn the respect of everyone around them.
There is no question of anyone hiding behind a closed door and opting for an easy life!
This is another key to the success of the Open. As I have implied, COC has a loose organisation structure whose exact structure depends on the number and experience of Vols available.
Crisis Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes and from any number of backgrounds. Many of the really dedicated have experienced homelessness, or as in my case, the bleakness that can come with being made redundant for no good reason (I will post my experience of WASP management techniques at some point in the near future – DP).
Even those who have no personal familiarity with the issues surrounding homelessness are not being paid, choosing to join in out of the goodness of their hearts. What unites this motley crew is the fact that they cannot be told what to do. Nevertheless, COC runs successfully and is, for the most part, a source of fun in the middle of London’s dreary winter.
Shift Leaders, Green Badges and Key Vols are skilled in asking people to do things, some of them not altogether pleasant. Hopefully new Vols realise that none of us will ever request that someone else to do something that we would not do ourselves – I have done everything except for working in the kitchens and I am due to attend a course in food hygiene training in a week or two so I will be able to fix that particular gaping hole in my COC career.
Over the past four years, I’ve cleaned lavatories and shower units, swept floors, carried boxes, manned the front gate in a blizzard, attempted to physically constrain a guest who, at close-down, realised that she’d missed her chance of being re-housed (she was trying to persuade the person in charge of the medical service to lie on her behalf) and decided she would try to go through the confidential patient files that were still onsite. The young lady in question was eventually talked into leaving the premises. I’ve averted at least three fights (on one occasion I just needed to walk away), mopped up vomit, assisted ambulance crew in providing medical assistance to seriously ill guests and (hardest of all) turned Guests out into the snow at the end of the week.
And yet, none of the above is what comes to mind when I think of COC. What I remember is talking and laughing with friends, listening to some of the most colourful stories imaginable, watching grateful Guests eating hot meals finished off with a cup of coffee and a free fag. I think of all the wonderful Vols who give up that most priceless of luxuries – time – to bring a smile to the faces of good people who, as the saying goes, “but for the Grace of God, go I”.
I recall the camaraderie that brings Vols together at several points in the year for wonderful (or wild, depending on which shift to which one belongs! I go to all of them!) parties with like-minded folk.
This year, all Vols were invited to meet up for an exceptionally good event on the Dixie Queen, which is a steamboat on the Thames; it has already been booked for 2005.
COC is a hard slog and it takes its toll on many of the people involved in running it. Fortunately, support for Vols comes in spades and if anyone feels that they cannot fulfil their tasks, they are encouraged to speak up. A replacement will always be found, or a way round any obstacle.
COC depends on the benevolence of other organisations for where the shelters are based and consequently sometimes they are not located in ideal premises (the hardcore still talk of the time when the Main was housed in a tent on Clapham Common. It was particularly cold that year apparently.
In 2002 and 2003 we were lucky to have use of a disused distribution warehouse on Mandela Way in Southwark whose large areas were pretty much ideal for organising the Main. Strong rumour has it that this year two of the shelters will be in a rather famous building on the South Bank! Hopefully I will be able to procure myself a bike, otherwise I will be dependent on cadging a lift from Vols when public transport stops on Christmas and Boxing Days.
If the rumours prove to be correct, Tim Edwards the Operations Manager and his team have come up trumps again.
For the other fifty-two weeks of the year, Crisis is based in ultra-modern offices on Commercial Street, which is prime development property in the heart of London’s financial district.
According to what I have been told, the reason for this is that the landlord made a neighbouring building available for the Drinkers Shelter in 2001 (i.e. my first year) and was so impressed with how smoothly it ran that he proposed the disparate elements of the charity come under one roof. I have no idea whether Crisis pays full commercial rents, but in any case the landlord did the charity a massive favour: morale is always high in the offices and people clearly enjoy both their jobs and the working environment.
On the subject of working environments, two years ago I effectively quit a well-paid senior management position because the CEO (a woman) refused to introduce water-coolers, despite clear evidence that such a simple gesture would improve the lot of the hardcore of the very hard-working, ill-paid workforce – for some reason the company has an extraordinarily high staff turnover, which costs it an inordinate amount of money in recruitment and training. I knew I could not stay when the MD (also a woman) referred to Human Resources as “really useless, woolly stuff” when we were discussing the business studies that she had done.
As this was the same person that had unofficially asked me to look for ways in which the workplace might become a happier place, I knew it was time for me to get out.
If anyone genuinely wants an abject lesson in how to keep workers happy in the twenty first century, they could do far worse than to go and take a good look at how Crisis is run – now I think of it, there could be an MBA case study in there!
I have done stints on each of the three shifts (Morning, Afternoon and Nights) and can honestly say that
COC NEEDS YOU!
This is especially true towards the end of the week when seasonal goodwill is less abundant.
No matter what your skillset, there is some way in which you can help; you don’t necessarily have to be ‘the front line’ as there are plenty of vital jobs that need doing behind the scenes.
This year I have had a lull in business activity, which has allowed me to spend the past couple of days lugging heavy objects around warehouses as part of the Resources Management team that is run by Bob Hove.
Bob is an excellent manager who worked for twenty-seven years in large corporations, ditto “Stocky” who has run the teams that provide the technical infrastructure that underpins COC.
Bob and I have discussed the reasons for the repeated success of Crisis/COC and we agree that respect is paramount – many of the fulltime employees have spent time on the street and, in a situation where creative problem-solving, where hard rules do exist, the reasons for them are explicit, understood and followed. There’s a lesson there.
A few hours hard physical work has done me good, as has spending time with people who, refreshingly, have no interest in business and, especially, the ego-politics that inevitably permeates any situation in which people are battling for their livelihoods. Just when I was flagging yesterday, a bunch of schoolchildren from Bexley Heath Lower School arrived with a lorry containing 8,000 tins of baked beans.
Must go, I need to earn some money if I am to avoid becoming a guest at COC this year!
One last thought: I wonder what ‘interesting’ substances I will have the pleasure of eating this Christmas – personally I tend to avoid tinned baked beans, but then I guess beggars can’t be choosers!
- By 2011, COC had been renamed Crisis At Christmas, which is what everyone used to call it anyway… big shift in meaning, however.
- These days this is referred to as the Dependency Centre.