I’ve never been homeless, but I have come close. I know what it’s like to be temporarily down on my luck and without a permanent address, bouncing from couch to couch as I lean on the kindness of friends and family while getting myself back on my feet.
One evening over the holidays, I registered a homeless woman in a Crisis centre and asked her for her borough of normal residence, and she replied that she had none since she moved from one house to the next. I was then reminded of how slender the line separating the strings of bad luck we all experience on occasion from outright indigence can be: back in the day, had it not been for my informal social safety net, that could have been me.
I was among the 10,000 volunteers from across the UK who spent the year’s last week in one of the network of centres run by Crisis at Christmas – a week in which servants become kings, and kings, servants. In pop-up centres that function like all-inclusive resorts, guests are pampered in makeshift hair salons and nail bars, eat abundant quantities of good food, unwind in IT cafés, get the spa experience with hot showers and massages, receive free medical and dental treatment, all while obtaining a broad range of services targeted at the homeless, from legal to employment advice and help with addictions. Visits to major attractions are put on, football clubs come to give away tickets to their matches, and the singer from Coldplay turned up at one of the karaoke sessions. And for many, who are not actually homeless but just marginalised or lonely, it’s a week in which they can socialise, reconnect with old friends, and make new ones.
‘We are the ninety-nine percent,’ we all like to say. But it’s not true. The fact is, if you live in a Western country, went to university and work in a profession — no matter the level – you’re among the planet’s richest tenth. If you own property or have a pension fund, you’re in the one percent. Moreover, as the economist Branko Milanovic has shown, almost none of this is due to anything we have done individually. Four-fifths results from just dumb luck – being born in the right country to the right family (legacies which moreover, I argue in my next book, sometimes derive from less-than-noble things done by our ancestors).
Put it all together, and we really don’t deserve to be where we are. So we do well to remind ourselves of our good fortune. Because a few days in a Crisis centre reminds you of just how fickle lady luck is. You meet people who had been successful but hit a spell of bad luck without the safety net the more fortunate among us enjoy. Most often, they carry themselves with a dignity that is remarkable for the challenges they must overcome in a society which feels a right to look down on them. Many of them have stories which are fascinating, touching, inspiring – and little different from our own.
For the volunteers, the week is an enjoyable and rewarding experience which takes them them from the empty materialism of a season which, given their yearning for more, often leaves them feeling equally isolated and lonely. I met some really dynamic and hope-filled people of all ages, many of whom had experienced epiphanies at some point and left careers devoted to making money and were now joyfully immersed in a world where they shared their lives with their fellow humans. Listening to their own stories, the theme which recurred as motive for joining Crisis was not charity — not an actual desire to become servant for a week – but a sense that we’re all in this together, that the world becomes a better place when we all hang together.
That yearning for connection to our fellows, one which supersedes our attachments to material things, makes the season in a Crisis centre particularly festive. Even on the coldest of nights, when my feet were frigid and my fingers numb as I did gate duty, looking into the bags of guests who unfailingly offered happily to let us ensure they were not carrying drugs, alcohol or weapons into the building, the camaraderie with colleagues and joviality with guests made the hours fly by (though it didn’t hurt that we were liberally supplied with hot tea!).
Many Crisis volunteers return, year after year, making it their primary celebration of the season. As I left my last shift and headed home to my warm bed, I didn’t doubt I would probably end up joining their ranks