Secretarial: How to organise a party in a Crisis

I Work For...; KATIE BURGESS IS PA TO SHAKS GHOSH, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF CRISIS, THE NATIONAL CHARITY FOR SINGLE HOMELESS PEOPLE
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The Independent Culture
I came to London in 1987 from Grimsby, where there were no homeless people to speak of, apart from a man who lived in a bus shelter, whom we called Popeye because he used to be a fisherman. I do not think we would have thought of him as "homeless", as we did not really know what that meant. In reality, we would have been far more likely to use the word "tramp".

When I came to London the first thing I saw was someone wrapped in a blanket on the pavement, begging. A lot of people have a fear of the homeless, which is ironic when you consider that homeless people are much more likely to be attacked by passers-by than vice versa. The thing about homeless people is that their options have often been closed down because of their circumstances. For example, they cannot choose whether or not to work or go to friends or parents over Christmas.

I feel strongly about social injustice and poverty and I liked the idea of working for Crisis - I guess it has a lot to do with my background. I am from a working-class home and I left school when it was still acceptable to go to straight into work - even for a minimum wage. I came to London to seek my fortune, and when I see homeless people, I feel, "There but for the grace of God... " I began temping at Crisis in 1997, when the organisation was still fairly small in terms of staff and was busy implementing operational plans and recruiting a new chief executive.

When Shaks was given the job, I think I assumed I would automatically become her PA, having worked for her predecessor. But Shaks really put me through my paces at interview and made me think about why I wanted the job. The first thing I remember her saying on offering me the job was: "You might want to think more about your appearance."

I was taken aback, but I soon realised that looking smart could put me in a different position. In fact I have to be presentable to secure support for the very people who have so little choice over their appearance. Sometimes I organise quiz nights for the homeless, and I dress down for those. On one occasion when I had not had time to change out of my work clothes, one of the participants asked if I was from the Salvation Army. Shaks also told me: "You are not my PA; you are my assistant. I will not be asking you to do my dry-cleaning. Instead I want you to represent me." She has given me a lot of confidence.

Other charities may operate in a cute and fluffy way, but not Crisis. Shaks has considerable presence; when she speaks, you take notice. She knows the direction she is headed in and does not stray from it. Lesser mortals may bumble on from day to day, but Shaks has a plan and is clear about what she wants and expects.

Providing shelter over Christmas is what Crisis is best known for, which is strange, because we work with homeless people all year. I remember the first time I worked in one of our shelters, helping with the hairdressing service. One client was on crutches and could not wash his own hair. I felt a bit wobbly at first, but once I had finished washing I saw how having clean hair made the man beam. It was overwhelming to realise how something so small could make someone feel so much better. My eyes were opened to what the charity is really about and what the work involves.

Earlier this year our senior managers and trustees decided we should organise a Millennium party for the homeless. We had great difficulty in finding a venue - people were quoting anything from pounds 50,000 to pounds 100,000 for the night, and we did not even have a budget. I had organised a carol service for pounds 800 the year before, so during my appraisal I piped up: "Let me manage the project." Shaks considered it and agreed. I went from managing Shaks to managing myself, and everything suddenly began to come together. The Royal Horticultural Society offered us one of its halls to use, then the band Dodgy phoned, wanting to play for us, and Homes and Gardens magazine kindly offered to decorate the venue.

The event became my creation, and I decided to do it in style: a three- course, sit-down meal with the guests waited on by volunteers - including champagne at midnight. I was clear that I did not want it run as a service, but as a party. We have organised a cinema, games, storytellers, bagpipe players, huge TV screens and performers, including an Elvis impersonator who was homeless with his family before he made it big up north. The Princess Royal will be visiting, which is wonderful, but I draw the line at celebrities using the occasion as a goldfish bowl - this event is for the guests.

My days can run from 8am to 9 or 10pm, and I have been setting up training for volunteers at weekends. I cannot miss deadlines, and all the plates have to be kept spinning. I may have burst into tears when half the invitations for the guests came back from the printers without maps on them, but on the whole I try not to panic - it is too infectious. I have learned to be more political. If you want something done by someone at a higher level than you, you have to be strategic.

Shaks is my mentor, and I have seen what a strong drive can achieve. I know what she is thinking and try to anticipate her needs - the only problem is that it is hard to say no to her. By giving me this project, Shaks has handed me a real gift. If I wanted to be cynical I would say it was great for my CV, but every time I think of moving on from Crisis, something new comes up. After my holiday, I want to organise another event. In the meantime, if this event is even half as good as I hope, it will be brilliant - the official "alternative Dome" party.

Interview by

Katie Sampson

If you would like to volunteer for Crisis, phone: 0171-655 8303

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