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.


The Refugee Crisis – Discuss

Think about the bountiful food banks son

Think about the bountiful food banks son

Is this the end of the world as we know it? Probably – at least it is if you read the comments section in the Daily Express. According to the DE readers we’re being swamped by hordes of cockroach-like benefit scroungers, hell bent on converting the indigenous population to Islam and Sharia law. Our culture and essential nationally established Christianity are being eroded by the EUSSR (Whatever that is) the Coudenhove-Kalergi Plan (No idea what that is either) and we’re all doomed. The end of the world is nigh.

That’s if we don’t all freeze to death in the DE’s predicted six-month Arctic Winter.

It’s an emotive issue for sure, and one which has the most liberal of people fuming into their cappuccino’s. The logic works like this: Why should we help these benefit scroungers when we can’t look after our own elderly? When young couples can’t get on the bottom rung of the housing ladder? When our streets are littered with rough sleepers? When we treat our ex-service personnel like social lepers once their service is over?

On the surface it’s a reasonable argument. People are running scared. Scrape away the veneer of the argument and two questions stand out. In our right wing orientated ‘me me me’ society, did anybody really give a shit about the homeless? The elderly? The ex-service personnel? Those on zero hour contracts? The other question is: What does any of this have to do with helping refugees?

The sad truth is that the vast majority of people didn’t give a rat’s arse about the elderly, the veterans, the homeless or the poor. Most people didn’t give a flying fuck, and therein lies the problem. What does it have to do with helping refugees? Sweet fuck all.

And all this bollocks about being a proud Christian nation? When did you last go to church? Christian churches have been battling falling congregations for decades, because too many true and proud Christians would rather go down the car boot sale on a Sunday morning.

Back to the refugees…they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. IS on the one side, Assad’s barrel bombs on the other, not forgetting Al Qaeda and the Al Nusra Front. According to many, the young men among the refugees should be staying put and fighting for their homeland. But fighting with what? Shovels? Kitchen knives? Frying pans? They can’t stand and fight because they have nothing to fight with. You can’t fight tanks, machine guns, assault rifles and on the Assad side an air force with sticks and stones. So they fled. It was either run or die for most of them. Imagine yourself in such a circumstance.

Not being completely wet behind the ears, I can see that among the genuine refugees there are economic migrants, and even potential terrorists. Just think about the latter for a moment. IS boast that they’ll smuggle thousands of jihadists into the country, and again, people here are scared. But could they actually do that? Many of the genuine refugees come in village and family units – they know who is IS and who isn’t. Would they make the journey with sleepers in their midst? Somehow I doubt that, but most people seem to take the propaganda at face value as dispensed by the ever reliable tabloids.

The refugees didn’t impose benefit sanctions on the sick, disabled and unemployed. Nor did they have any bearing on how our elderly, the homeless, or the ex-service personnel are treated. We need to look a little closer to home for that. That is our government’s responsibility. They collect the taxes and they decide how that money is to be spent. Rather than help the disadvantaged they’ve chosen to allow billion pound industries to evade paying any tax at all. They’ve supported bankers’ bonuses amounting to millions. They squandered a billion of tax payers’ money in a single day by selling off a portion of RBS to their mates. And the supreme irony is that they were democratically elected – despite them telling everybody in the clearest possible terms what they were going to do. As that doyen of the Daily Mail, Richard Littlejohn might say: “You couldn’t make it up!”

As for the refugees, blissfully unaware of our first world problems they cling to flimsy dinghies bobbing around in the Mediterranean swells and shitting themselves, praying they won’t drown en-route, or they scramble through razor wire in Eastern Europe hoping not to be on the wrong end of a kick in the bollocks from a burly Hungarian riot cop. Hoping for sanctuary, hoping for safety, and if we aren’t all too busy at the time maybe a word of welcome, a smile and a friendly word or gesture.

Let’s not forget that it was principally the UK and the USA who instigated this state of play, this theatre of war, by arming Assad’s opponents because Assad didn’t fit in with their agenda. Effectively we armed and equipped IS – or Daesh as they should more correctly be described – thus causing this tide of human misery to flee the Daesh and abandon their homes. Or at least the ones that weren’t already razed to the ground. It’s our duty to help these people, our collective obligation.

Austerity doesn’t work. Our problems are problems of our own design, and nothing to do with refugees. We can afford to spend half a million on a missile to blow up a pick-up truck but Jimmy from down the road gets his benefits stopped because he was two minutes late for an appointment, combat veterans with mental health issues can be abandoned to a life without a roof over their heads and we can’t offer a helping hand to people whose problems are directly attributable to us.

Stop the world – I really do want to get off.

Martin Shuttlecock.