Christmas Eve in the night shelter – a memoir

We're all human. Aren't we?

We’re all human. Aren’t we?

Some years ago I was working as a night project worker in an experimental night shelter. It was experimental because it was a ‘wet’ shelter – a temporary haven for the homeless where the residents (we were supposed to call them clients, but I never felt comfortable with that, so to me they were residents) were allowed to bring in and consume alcohol on the premises.

To the casual observer the set up may have appeared to be a recipe for disaster, yet it turned out to be workable for the most part. The shelter was staffed by two salaried project workers with a line manager and a night duty officer on call in case of problems. We worked four nights on and four nights off, opening up the building and admitting the residents from 8pm to 8am daily, and that year Christmas Eve was – along with my co-worker – our last night.

One of the worst aspects of the job came about in the mornings. The residents had beds in individual cubicles and a communal area for socialising, but in the mornings they had to leave as the building was unstaffed in the daytime. That’s a tough call on a cold winter morning. Most residents would while away the daylight hours in the local library, a pub if they had the money, a fast food place or even a laundrette, before coming to the shelter in the evenings for a meal, a spot of socialising and a warm bed for the night.

We couldn’t possibly have turned the residents out onto the street on Christmas morning, so my co-worker and I volunteered to stay on for an extra 8 hours (unpaid) after our shift until a local volunteer group arrived to cook Christmas dinner for the residents.

The same volunteers had opened up an hour early on Christmas Eve, and as I arrived I sensed something amiss. The residents were clustered in a group in the communal area, and one or two were looking agitated.

Next up, the doorbell rang and when I went to answer it I was confronted by half a dozen cops in riot gear and the same number of irate citizens. It later transpired that one of our younger residents had decided to amuse himself by smashing car wing mirrors with a small hammer, and had been pursued by said citizens and police to the shelter.

So the cops came in, and the guilty kid made it clear that he wasn’t going with them without a fight. There was a stand off, and I was stuck in the middle, between an angry young man and police officers holding out canisters of pepper spray. I just did the first thing that came into my head.

“Whoah!” I said to the cops. “Don’t start spraying that shit around. Let me talk to him. He’ll be okay, trust me.”

With that the cops thankfully paused, but the kid was getting increasingly agitated.

“Look,” I said to him. “Think about it. One way or another you’re going to be going with them. The hard way isn’t a good option. Just give it up and talk to them. They won’t hurt you. I promise. I won’t let them.”

Looking directly into his eyes I could see that he wasn’t going to do that, I knew the kid and I knew where he was from, so despite the fact that he appeared to calm down, then raised his hands and said: “Okay.”

He tried to do a runner, bolted, but as he spun around he ran face first directly into a cast iron roof post and knocked himself spark out.

Not the greatest start to an evening in the season of goodwill.

My first duty of care being to the resident, I crouched over him, shielding him from the police, who seemed all too keen to pepper spray him, but to their credit, they didn’t. They thankfully held off.

He was out cold for a matter of seconds, but it seemed like an eternity until he blinked and started talking again. I helped him to his feet and the cops put him in a van without further incident.

Until he realised he’d been nicked and started kicking the shit out of the sides of the van. But that’s more or less a given in the circumstances, and the cops didn’t seem too concerned about it.

Considering all this occurred within ten minutes of the Christmas Eve night shift things weren’t looking good, but everything chilled out considerably after that.

We had three musicians in that night, one a novice, one who’d come from a well off family who’d taken to the streets after losing his friends to drugs, and a sensitive soul from my wife’s home town.

We spent that Christmas Eve listening to these wonderful guys playing sweet music on their guitars and singing. One of the highlights being the former pro band member who gave a comedic interpretation of Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’ substituting the signature line with: ‘You look like fucking shite.’ Adding that as a busker, asking a guy in a cinema queue what his girlfriend’s name is and then substituting it for Sally in Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ was a guaranteed money spinner.

In the meantime, I got into a conversation with the guy from my wife’s home town, a musically talented and gifted sensitive soul who was a committed vegan. I asked him if he’d eaten and he replied that he hadn’t so I offered to rustle something up for him. He had a passion for garlic mushrooms, and thanks to my beloved wife – from his home town, Worcester – I had the perfect recipe.

So I cooked the guy some garlic mushrooms, and he said they were the finest garlic mushrooms he’d ever tasted. He was teary eyed when he said it, and it moved me.

“I’m going home,” he said. “I’ve decided. It’s been too long.”

“But it’s half four on Christmas morning,” I pointed out. “No trains, no buses. Get your head down here. You’ll be okay.”

“Thanks all the same. But I’m going home,” he said. “Could you open the door please?”

I tried to talk him out of it, but he wasn’t having any of it. He thanked me for the garlic mushrooms, slung his bag on his back and walked off into the mist at 4:30 on Christmas morning, thanking me for my hospitality and understanding.

It was a strange night, yet a wonderful night, and one I will be eternally grateful to have been a part of.

There is no moral to this story. It’s just life experience for all of those involved.

We’re all just people – no more, no less.

Thanks for reading this, and Merry Christmas.

Cafe Spike.

(Visited 236 times, 1 visits today)