Billy O’Brien – Outreach Worker
As we approach Christmas, Billy casts his mind back and recounts his Outreach shift last year in central London on Christmas day. You can support this year’s Radio 4 Christmas Appeal here
Picture the scene….. 6am…Strand Central London…..met with a freezing cold male who was in Central London trying to find work, very frightened and wide eyed at what he has woken to, a deserted London with nowhere open and looking like a scene from an apocalyptic movie…..introduced ourselves to him and informed him he has a place to go to and be with people and get warm food etc.
Further along a young female with severe mental health and drug dependencies lying under a thin blanket (-7 was temp at time) showing no motivation to get up and get warm or our offers of a place of safety and warmth later, just a nod to indicate she is ok. A young couple, both under 30, trying to motivate each other to get warm, managing a fake smile and grateful to be offered a warm meal later.
On St Martins Lane 3 males who are physically ravaged by heroin/crack use are sitting under their sleeping bags staring ahead…wondering what the day will bring, can they score drugs today? Can they acquire the money to get the drugs today? Is any day centre open they can access as they are all excluded for various reasons from several daycentres in London, I enquire after their welfare and ask them to pop by The Connection at St Martins later as I can give them hot food and extra clothing etc to alleviate their discomfort.
Lastly we get to Piccadilly Circus, normally heaving with shoppers and tourists, traffic and buses honking horns and jostling for position at the lights but now deserted….we see a young male (18 years old) obviously in distress, his shoes, jacket, bag containing his passport, travel documents and letters from his parents in his home country in Eastern Europe is lying under just cardboard and bubble wrap, he looks at us with utter relief which we picked up on straight away. He was robbed the night before by persons unknown who thought it was funny to go out drinking, saw a vulnerable homeless person asleep with belongings easily stolen and took them…..we end the shift then as he has just socks on his feet and a thin t-shirt, so we take him straight to The Connection to kit him out in new shoes and clothes and jackets from donations we receive from you guys reading/listening to this, he is safe so we can have a warm cuppa and contemplate the shift……..
This is Central London on Christmas Day 2011, on an Outreach shift with our partner The Passage day centre, which is based in Victoria. We joined forces to cover practically over half the borough of Westminster, looking for new rough sleepers, checking people are not dying of exposure, injuries, drug/alcohol related incidents and looking out for the elderly, females, foreign nationals who don’t speak a word of English, those who are excluded, those who are violent, those who tell us on a daily basis (with choice words) to go away…..and so on. London transforms for the homeless population at this time of year.
When we are with our loved ones on Christmas Day and stressing about burnt potatoes or running out to get batteries for toys that will only get used for a day or two, crashing on the sofa watching Shrek for the 7 year running, moaning about reduced public transport and long queues for sales that you probably wont buy anything from……. Think of the young male mentioned above. He would not have had a spoken word of contact with a friendly face, never mind a mince pie if homeless services didn’t cancel/postpone their Christmas to make sure he got one that day…..
This isn’t a tale to sadden people or put a black blanket over the festive period, it’s reality, it’s happening and it’s about perspective.