We're talking turkey for 600

Rosalind Powell learns how Crisis feeds the homeless at Christmas
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The Independent Culture
Wearing blue overalls and a flat cap, 70-year-old Roger surveys his surroundings. "I love the challenge of turning this into something that is reasonably habitable," he says with a sweeping gesture towards the huge warehouse space that stretches b efore him.

It's seems a tall order. Cold and cavernous, the warehouse is divided into three bays and dotted with small teams of people, darting around like ants in an industrious but convivial atmosphere. One group sorts through stacks of food boxes, piling them upunder labels of "tinned stewed meat", "jelly and custard" and "misc. pasta". Another team sifts through bin liners bursting with overcoats, marking them up into sizes and hanging them on rails. "Come breathe my vapours," offers a man in a mask, brandishing a spray as he fumigates a mountain of rugs and blankets. Piles of mattresses line the walls, and the floor is scattered with crates of socks, boxes of vegetables and large stewing pots.

Roger disappears back into his storeroom to count the provisions of soap, disinfectant and towels. As one of the 2000 odd volunteers that offer their services over Christmas, he is helping the charity Crisis transform the space in Bermondsey, south Lond o n, into a shelter for the homeless for eight days over the festive period. By December 23 the decorations will be up, the heating on and the place filled with 600 residents.

"It's sad that so many people need us, really. Who would come and sleep on a mattress in a warehouse unless you absolutely had to?" reflects Joanna Wade, a charity Trustee. But with 2,000 people sleeping on the streets in London, the need is great.

Crisis has been offering shelter over Christmas for the past 25 years. The operation - and the numbers catered for - have grown substantially. Originally providing a bed for the night and three meals, The Open Christmas (as the project is called) now op e rates three sites, each offering an extended range of facilities from hairdressing, massage and clothing to medical care - doctors surgeries, opticians and chiropody.

"I really admire the professionals," says Wade. "Especially the chiropodists. They see some horrible feet, and they love the challenge of a nasty foot." All the professionals offer their services free of charge. Crisis spends just a minimal amount of money - £50,000 - to pay for bills, building materials and fresh meat. Public donations make up the rest.

Christmas Day is a highly organised affair. It is punctuated by visits (Cardinal Hume usually pops by), the odd celebrity appearance - "that's particularly popular - especially if it's a woman and she's blond" notes Wade - and entertainment in the form of a jazz band. Not surprisingly, television dominates the day's proceedings, broken at 6 o'clock when dinner - "the full works" - is served.

"We have to balance up the fact that this is not the ideal place to spend Christmas with the fact that it is Christmas Day, so we're fairly low key about it," explains Wade. "We don't want to shove the need to be happy down people's throats - we want to give them the choice as to whether to celebrate or not."

Peter, a volunteer for 23 years, describes the atmosphere as "an enormously good feeling. It's noisy, smoky a bit smelly at times - but there's such a lot of warmth."

And religion? "At Christmas? Certainly not," he laughs, adding that a small carol service is provided for the less disillusioned.

Inevitably, there are problems, although the number of incidents, Peter says, "are no greater than they would be in the general populace. It's just concentrated." There are also a fair share of characters. One regular resident would eat the tinsel on thetree every year. Another was convinced she was the Virgin Mary.

The volunteers, in dealing with many who are lonely and isolated, have to tread a thin line between friendliness and professionalism while avoiding favouritism. "We try to be friendly, but not too close,' explains Roger. "Especially if it's a lady volunteer, as the residents sometimes get the wrong idea and it can be embarrassing."

Their commitment is impressive. "Some volunteers may do it to absolve their consciences," says Wade, "but a lot do it to be fulfilled as it's so exciting." Roger, who has worked for Crisis for nine years since he retired, describes himself as 'hooked". Andy, who has also taken part for nine years, is driven by his belief that homelessness is "morally wrong". Michael, a jolly, pirate lookalike complete with beard and hoop earrings, is more blunt. "I'm bored" he jokes.

His boredom has led him to mastermind an on-the-road version of the Open Christmas scheme, transforming a trailer into a hairdressers, doctors surgery and massage parlour. Along with a mobile catering unit) the trailer stops at Deptford for breakfast, Waterloo for elevenses, Kentish Town for afternoon tea and Ealing for dinner.

"I've got sod all but they've got less than I have, so I feel for them, really. It sounds soppy, but it's true," he explains as he tries on a fake fur jacket from one of the bin bags. "I also like to model the clothes," he laughs.