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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Theresa May's Brexit stance could come at a political cost

The Prime Minister risks raising unrealistic expectations among Leave backers.

Good morning. For Leavers, there's only one more sleep before Christmas: tomorrow Tim Barrow will moonlight as a courier and hand-deliver Theresa May's letter triggering Article 50 to Donald Tusk and Britain's Brexit talks will start.

Well, sort of. That we're pulling the trigger in the middle of, among other things, the French elections means that the EU27 won't meet to discuss May's exit proposals for another month. (So that's one of 23 out of 24 gone!)

The time pressure of the Article 50 process - which, its author Colin Kerr tells Politico was designed with the expulsion of a newly-autocratic regime in mind rather than his native country - disadvantages the exiting nation at the best of times and if there is no clear winner in the German elections in October that will further eat into Britain's negotiating time.

That Nigel Farage has announced that if the Brexit deal doesn't work out he will simply move abroad may mean that Brexit is now a win-win scenario, but heavy tariffs and customs checks seem a heavy price to pay just to get shot of Farage.

What are the prospects for a good deal? As I've written before, May has kept her best card - Britain's status as a net contributor to the EU budget - in play, though the wholesale rejection of the European Court may cause avoidable headaches over aviation and other cross-border issues where, by definition, there must be pooling of sovereignty one way or another.

That speaks to what could yet prove to be May's biggest mistake: she's done a great job of reassuring the Conservative right that she is "one of them" as far as Brexit is concerned. But as polling for BritainThinks shows, that's come at a cost: expectations for our Brexit deal are sky high. More importantly, the average Brexit voter is at odds with the Brexit elite over immigration. David Davis has once again reiterated that immigration will occasionally rise after we leave the EU. A deal in which we pay for single market access, can strike our own trade deals but the numbers of people coming to Britain remain unchanged might work as far as the British economy is concerned. May might yet come to regret avoiding an honest conversation about what that entails with the British public.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.