So difficult, so painful

NS Christmas - Penelope Bennett spends Christmas Eve with the homeless and sees their world anew

It is 9.15pm, Christmas Eve 2003. I'm driving to Southwark where, in a warehouse, this year's Open Christmas is being held. I am to do the Christmas Eve night shift, 10pm-8.30am. South London's roads are almost deserted. I imagine the 800 or so Crisis at Christmas "guests" (as they are known) making their way - not, like me, by car - towards Southwark.

The warehouse is surrounded by high, clanging metal fences and lit by ice-blue and white arc lights. Yellow-jacketed volunteers holding walkie-talkies guard the entrances. Guests lean against the fences, the tails of their bewildered-looking dogs wagging. On a notice is written: "All we ask is: No Violence, No Weapons, No Alcohol, No Drugs. Thank you." By mistake, I enter through the guests' gate and to my surprise I am immediately frisked. Obviously the line between guest and volunteer is finer than I'd imagined.

The volunteers' area has a concrete floor, square concrete pillars and dim lights. It resembles an underground car park. The night-shift volunteers queue to be given badges - to be worn at all times. Some will be doing night shifts for the whole week. Some have been volunteers for many years.

Using a pallet as a rostrum, a volunteer leader tells us what we are going to do. Each sub-shift, shared by "partners", lasts about an hour and is either in or outdoors, one of the latter being the "Marigold" shift - cleaning the lavatories and showers. "Keep it safe, friendly and welcoming," we are told, "and remember that what the guests need as much as shelter and food is being spoken to. Some may not have had a conversation since last year."

My "partner" is Roddy, a young, kind-eyed man. We have been given the emergency ward: four beds filled with three men whom we have to watch over in case they need medical help. This will be provided by two doctors, a husband and wife who have come from the north to do two night shifts.

We are looking after James and William, both recovering from drug or/and alcohol excess. The third man, Brian, is asleep. James is a very young man who can't stop talking and moving. William shivers and drifts in and out of sleep.

In this "medical" part of the warehouse there is also a dentist, optician, masseuse, nurse, pedicurist, dependency service and needle exchange, the Samaritans and, nearby, an Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous centre.

Back in the volunteers' area, I ask a not-so-young volunteer if this is her first time at Crisis and if she would consider doing it again. "This is what Christmas is all about!" she replies enthusiastically. "I'll definitely come again."

"At least it gets me through Christmas," another volunteer comments.

The next shift is outdoors guarding a gap between the fences. En route to the gap, we pass through the enormous main day room, which is packed with guests, lying on beanbags and sleeping bags against the wall, sitting at tables talking, reading or being solitary. Two rival televisions blast out their programmes. On the wall is a menu of the day's TV programmes, plus times for bingo, disco dancing, funk animal sculpture and t'ai chi/qigong. Also on the walls are coloured Missing and Murder posters and Christmas cards from various churches; on one, someone has written: "Christmas, so difficult, so painful."

It is freezing outside. The generators hum and a soprano-voiced dog in the nearby dog shelter howls, wolf-like, hating being parted from its owner.

5am. Another shift: tidying up. At one end of the room, guests sit and queue, waiting for the clothes store to open.

While clearing up I meet Mr Night Rider, a middle-aged man who keeps himself to himself. "I had to walk here in the rain from Charing Cross because I've only got 30p left in my pocket."

The night buses are his "home". He sits at the back, feet up against the warm engine, and catnaps. He knows his nocturnal timetable by heart. From Aldwych, the N9 takes him to Heathrow. From Heathrow he catches the N140 to Harrow Weald. This "gets rid" of about three hours of night. During the daytime he buses over London, stopping off at museums and libraries.

"And where do you eat?"

He relays the timetables and the menus of the different soup kitchens: noon, Kentish Town, Hari Krishna Centre, vegetable curry and rice. Or 12.45pm, Arlington Road, Camden Town at the Church of Hal, sandwiches, tea and coffee . . . 6.30pm, the Strand, the Simon Community, sandwiches and tea.

As I leave Mr Night Rider's side, I realise this has been a Christmas Eve like no other I have experienced.