What we can learn from Crisis Christmas

Like Crisis, the religious story is about the importance of keeping a door open to strangers.

Chantelle doesn't look biblical. Her big hair is held back with a red and white polka dot bow and her neon green bra shows at the shoulder. But like Mary in the Christmas story, this 21 year old is homeless, and turned up pregnant with an unmarried partner at an unlikely inn. It's just that her Bethlehem is south London, and her stable is a school canteen in a pop up shelter.

"It's somewhere to go isn't it?" she says, "My dad's a junkie, my mum's a bitch and I can't afford a deposit... council houses are for young girls, like, really young, fourteen... I'm not priority."

I met Chantelle at Crisis. Christmas is supposed to be a time of miracles, and every year this charity pulls one off. Run by some 8,000 volunteers, this organisation makes sure no one has to sleep rough or alone in difficult accommodation over Christmas week. They do this by taking over buildings closed for the holidays -- schools, hospitals, day centres -- and transforming them into shelters. They're still running as you read this.

I'm not religious, but if there is something to the Christmas story, this has to be it. When Joseph and Mary were travelling from inn to inn, they couldn't afford private rents and welfare didn't exist. Like the guests at Crisis, they were cast out, judged and failed by the market and the state. Eventually they were given a place to stay out of kindness, and a space for animals was transformed into a maternity ward.

Like Crisis, the religious story is about the importance of keeping a door open to strangers. It's about action beyond resources and targets; it's about the power of compassion, time and human relationships.

Of course it's difficult. The centre I was working in didn't get the keys to the building until the morning guests arrived. With minimal checks and training, volunteers walk in and put on housing surgeries, stand up comedy shows, arts and crafts workshops and dentist consultations in classrooms. Identifying themselves by coloured badges, volunteers, who may never have met before, work together out of little more than blind good will.

Together, they get through the tragedy of a sick man's collapse, the anger of someone being denied a bed, the laughter of a bad cracker joke and the quiet, intimate conversation as a cigarette lighter sparks in the cold.

And you learn. These people all come from my area of south London. They are my neighbours, but they tell me about a world I don't know. You learn that you shouldn't assume that everyone who is homeless is sleeping rough; people are fiercely proud of temporary or unstable accommodation. You learn to interact with dignity and respect for guests who have many more years experience than you. I sat down with an ESOL teacher with a degree in psychotherapy and an ex-serviceman who travelled the world for twenty-eight years. You learn how thin the line is between finding it difficult to pay the rent, crashing with a friend, and queuing for a hostel.

Nor is it all dark and sad. If you live day-to-day, you don't have the space to worry too far into the future. There's a preoccupation with getting enough food, finding somewhere else to sleep, bumming your next cigarette and topping up phone credit. The freedom of strangers and endless free cupcakes opens up a precious space in these shelters for laughter that frequently touches volunteers as much as guests, who are often struggling with big concerns of their own.

We should learn from Crisis. Unlike some of the work we do directly through the state, this programme is not subject to much bureaucracy. It makes use of buildings that would otherwise be closed. And it is built on human relationships rather than transactional roles, helping to transform the volunteer as well as the guest. We should make it easier to replicate these miracles, not just in the capital over Christmas, but wherever and whenever our modern day Mary might turn up.

To find out more about Crisis Christmas, visit the site here.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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