5 Realities Of A Homeless Shelter At Christmas
Most people dream of a white Christmas, with a thick, shimmering layer of fresh snow blanketing the world, wrapping everything you know in a cozy embrace. It's a beautiful, quiet scene -- a scene that's best enjoyed from indoors, with a warm cup of coffee (Irish or otherwise), and a warm fire roaring in the fireplace. If you're homeless, however, a white Christmas can fucking murder you.
We spoke to Brock Lee, who coordinates a year-round U.K. charity that holds holiday events to help homeless people when they need it most. This is the time of year when people at least claim to think about the less fortunate (mostly to avoid late-night ghost visits), so we thought it'd be nice to talk to somebody who makes helping the needy a full-time job:
People Treat The Homeless As Props
These charities exist to help people with serious problems. They do not exist to round up sideshows and parade them around for gawkers, or to help regular folks gain perspective on their own lives. Surprisingly, not everyone is aware of this.
Parents are the worst offenders, according to Lee. Raising a functional human is hard, and quite a few people would love to outsource the job. So if their snowflakes are rowdy and hard to handle, why not take them to a charity and make them dish out food to smelly people for an hour?
"Can you guys please hurry up? Mom said I could get an Xbox after this."
"You get those people who want to 'scare straight' their kids by having them give homeless people meals for an hour at Christmas," says Lee. "I gently explain to them that our shifts are seven hours for completely valid reasons (mainly to prevent this sort of behavior) and that we can't have under 16 volunteering with us for insurance reasons (some of our guests aren't allowed to be around young people, and my job is to help them, not some kid). On occasion, parents take offense to this, so I (less gently) explain that we aren't running a fucking zoo."
Just to be clear -- after you drop off the children somewhere appropriate, please do go help at a place like this. It will be one of the most rewarding things you'll do during the holidays, and it's badly needed. But be prepared to devote a good chunk of the day to it. They don't want tourists, or people who just want a feel-good story to tell the next day at the office. And ...
Don't Expect Everyone To Be Grateful
Unsurprisingly, compassion fatigue is common among charity workers. "You get a moment where you can't build an emotional attachment anymore." Charity workers do long hours to prepare for Christmas -- Lee worked an average of 60 hours per week during December. After all that effort, it's still not enough.
"We actually don't have the ability to house people over Christmas. We have to put people out at the end of the night, even if we know they have nowhere to go. So last year, we had someone who cycled like 50 miles to the center in the hopes of having somewhere to sleep. It was dark, cold, and late, and I had to explain to him that the best we could do was get someone to check on him in the night to make sure he was alive and maybe get him a night the next day. It's heartbreaking to see that look in someone's eyes and know you let them down."
"We'll bring the bike in for you though, so it doesn't get stolen. This is a hipster neighborhood."
Also, even the most downtrodden among us will find ways to test the patience of those trying to help:
"There are also the people who will just look for reasons to be assholes. This one guy was angry that we wouldn't give him bus fare home at the end of the day. Now, this was Christmas day and buses weren't running, so we all knew full well he didn't want the money for the bus. He kicked off and demanded to see my manager. I explained that I was the head of the event and the decision was mine to make but if he wanted make a complaint I would help him fill out the form. He refused, told me to go fuck myself, and left. Then two weeks later, he was at another event in the center, said I was an awesome guy, and gave me a card that had some weird symbol on it, claiming that it would get me out of trouble if I showed it to folks. I think he thought it was an Illuminati get-out-of-jail-free card."
So the all-seeing eye can make his parking tickets disappear, but can't help that poor guy get three meals a day?
There was another guest who Lee says worked hard for six years, improving his life and finding a job, a place to live, and whatnot. Lee felt proud and happy for this guy. Then one day, out of the blue, the man came to the center and threatened staff with violence. In a matter of moments, he threw away six years of hard work. That was a sad moment for Lee, who is still a bit new, but for everyone else working at the center, it was no surprise at all. "Everyone had a 'bound to happen' attitude about it."
Remember, these people are homeless for a reason. We don't mean "because they're jerks and deserve it"; we mean that mental illness and substance abuse issues run rampant. If you reserve your charitable feelings only for those capable of showing gratitude in some satisfying way, you'll be neglecting the ones who need help the most. They show their gratitude by still being alive the next time Christmas comes around.
They're cold and starving; they don't have the energy to pat you on the back.
Donations Are Bizarrely Random
Giving away food and clothes to the needy is, shockingly, not a profitable venture. That means operations like Lee's depend on the generosity of strangers, and that can be the very definition of a mixed bag. For instance, 4 tons of clothes show up each year of their own accord, but about three-fourths is too old, tatty, or moldy to actually give to anyone. On top of that, some people give away outright creepy things. PSA: Please don't give away your child's used underwear. Someone has to sift through all those mountains of clothes and randomly discover worn-out kid's underwear -- it's creepy and uncomfortable.
And then there's the random game of roulette that is food donations. " a school had leftover chocolate. They had an event where they couldn't give away the chocolate and wanted to donate it to us. It was two days before Christmas. They brought a box of chocolate that wouldn't fit through the doors. ... It had 10,000 chocolate Christmas ornaments, like little stars, 400 2-inch tall chocolate bears, and 75 6-inch rabbits. We gave away everything at bingo tournaments. For about two days, all I ate was chocolate."
And yet schools are so "strapped for cash" teachers are forced to buy their own supplies. Go figure.
The things people give away often reveal parts of their lives. Sometimes, you'll know a family is grieving because a few boxes of random goods arrive. The donors clearly grabbed whatever belonged to Mom and Dad and stuck it in a box without going through it. Opening these boxes can be very poignant. The boxes can also contain random stuff they probably didn't mean to give away -- Lee has found jewelry and old passports.
What charities need most, though, is cash, and getting that out of people is a bit harder. "We try to turn everything into a fundraising opportunity. ... We can't sell shit, so we must ask people for money. did a Christmas carol service in the mall raised 1,200 pounds from that. All homeless or ex-homeless were singing. The concert gives them a good sense of confidence and self-worth, which is really important to moving on."
The crowd didn't even give them shit for missing the high C in "Silent Night."
And stuff like that is literally a life and death issue for these people. That's because ...
Not to bring down your Christmas mood with the abject horror of real-life poverty, but Lee has some stats for you. "In the U.K., the average life expectancy is 47." It's even lower for women -- they die at 43. American homeless people live marginally longer -- all the way to 50. Homeless people most often die of heart disease, substance abuse, and trauma, and their problems are worsened because they can't access medical help, or if they do, their lives are too unstable to follow through with doctor's orders. Lee told us a story that illustrates just how deadly even a little bit of homelessness can be:
"A couple years ago in Newcastle, someone was sleeping on the streets; he was a journalist and died his first night. Lee Halpin. He was well-liked and well-connected in the U.K. It caused a bit of noise in homeless charities. That's why we tell people not to do that. That was in June. His heart just stopped beating. No drugs, no evidence of foul play. He just died."
It's not like he was some old, out-of-shape guy either. He was 26.
Officially, Lee died due to something called Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome (often called Sudden Adult Death Syndrome). SADS can affect anyone (it can be the result of congenital heart problems), but obviously someone living a stressful life on the freezing street is more likely to "trigger" this kind of time-bomb disease. Meanwhile, people freeze to death all over America, especially during sudden cold snaps (abrupt temperature drops kill people even in "warm" places like Los Angeles). In New York, cold snaps call for a "Code Blue," and the city requires shelters to let in anyone who asks without making them go through a lengthy application.
New York is one of the cities in America with "right to shelter" laws, meaning the city is responsible for making sure homeless people have somewhere to go ... but they can't make anyone take shelter if they refuse. Many homeless people have severe trust issues and would rather risk the weather. Being alone brings more problems: depression and loneliness. Those feelings, plus the mental grogginess from being so cold, can weaken a person's will to live.
No one should be forced to recreate the ending of The Shining.
This is why Lee's charity never gives away sleeping bags. He says you shouldn't give sleeping bags or blankets to homeless people because it carries the message that's the best you can do for them, to make it slightly more comfortable to sleep on a sidewalk. And a poor message is as bad as no help at all ... maybe worse. "The biggest barrier to breaking the cycle is mental. ... Here in the U.K., we have free health care, but it doesn't help. We're good with the body, but not with the mind. The No. 1 killer in men from 20 to 45 is suicide, because we don't take care of our emotional well-being."
Yeah, about 25 percent of homeless people have a severe mental illness, a number that climbs higher if you throw in those with chronic substance abuse. Homeless people are over nine times more likely to kill themselves than the general population. Trying to help them might cause them to lash out, run away, or God knows what else. To give up or say, "Well if they don't want my help, screw 'em!" is badly misunderstanding the problem.
Breaking Through Isn't Easy, But It Does Happen
Lee estimates about 25 percent of the guests at his charity do break free of homelessness. If so, even that is a remarkable number, considering how many don't want to "break free." It has to do with a firm belief that all other options are worse. "Fear of change holds back a lot of people in general . Even if they're on the street, it might be better than what they don't know. Half our job is telling them they can do it. It feels like constantly hitting them on the head with a positivity hammer. When it finally breaks through, something special happens."
One Boxing Day, a guest was eating his meal and kept surreptitiously taking a can out of his pocket, like he was sneaking booze. "I went over to him and asked if he was drinking. I asked to see the can in his pocket. It was a cider or beer. He said he had nothing else on him, so I let him stay. 'This is your one warning,' I said. He got a little riled up. It was the end of the day, and I was tired and stressed. I said to his sober friends that if I kicked him out, he would want them to come with him. He did have more alcohol on him, but they took it away and gave it to me. You have to encourage the people who are there to self-police. Peer pressure is a good thing."
Part of giving people back a little humanity, is giving them a chance to use it.
One guest volunteered in the kitchens last year. He had a lot of substance abuse problems, but after helping out in the kitchens, he started looking for a catering job. He found one in June, and now he has a place to live and even has contact with his son. "That's the reason I put myself through the rigors of Christmas, even if I'm not the sole reason that happened," says Lee.
A few good stories make all the sacrifice worth it. One of his favorites is a woman who had been living on the street when she came to get help. Now she owns her own cabaret business, and last Christmas she sang "Let It Go" for a crowd of 200 people. That's about as much of a Hollywood ending as you get in this business, even if it's just a matter of time until the inevitable Disney lawsuit hits.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Horrifying Things You Learn Living In A Homeless Tent City and 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless.
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