Hundreds of people will be back on the streets later this week, as winter shelters close their doors. On Sunday, Crisis is staging a fund- raising show at the Globe Theatre to mark 30 years of helping the homeless - and as Louise Jury reports, there's more work to be done than ever
WHEN Bill Shearman founded Crisis at Christmas it was a Conservative plot. Extraordinary as it might seem, the charity which is this month marking 30 years' crusading for the homeless began life as a bid to wrestle power from Labour in the East End of London.

Mr Shearman had finished his National Service and returned home to work in his father's builders' merchants and join the Tories. Realising the uphill struggle they faced in a fiercely pro-Labour area, he formed the East London Conservative Association (ELCA) and began to look around to see how it could make itself relevant to the impoverished electorate. "The idea behind ELCA was to try, very naively I suppose, to outflank the Labour Party in areas of social concern."

The problems of the time were vast. Official estimates for Britain put the number of homeless single people at 13,000, with 1,000 of them sleeping rough, the majority in London. The real figures were probably much higher.

In Cable Street, the notorious battle ground of Mosley's fascists, meths- drinkers and drop-outs lived in hovels. "The stench was terrible, and there were makeshift beds made of sacks," recalls Mr Shearman, now a bluff 60-year-old businessman. "I remember going and there was a man being looked after by a woman who was obviously on drugs, which was shocking in these days. Even in Scotland people talked about Cable Street."

With the backing of "One Nation" Tory Ian Macleod, then shadow Chancellor, Mr Shearman decided something must be done. But then, with amazing political selflessness, it was agreed that the problem was too big to be party-political.

"We thought everybody in society, all the 'haves', should unite - youth clubs, churches, parties - to raise money and highlight the people who were at the bottom of the heap," Mr Shearman says.

He found a socialist chairman in Nick Beacock, the local curate at St Barnabas' Church in East Ham (who now works for another housing charity). The aim was to raise money and give the homeless of the East End a proper Christmas. With pounds 100 each from Macleod and the then Labour MP Reg Prentice, Mr Shearman began work. Crisis at Christmas was born.

"I went to see everyone in the parties, I involved the church. Ian Macleod tried to get us publicity but nobody was interested," Mr Shearman says. But they pressed ahead and organised four sponsored walks, from Windsor, Upminister, St Albans and Redhill, and a symbolic walk from Cable Street itself, culminating in a candle-lit rally. Three thousand people gathered in Hyde Park on 17 December 1967, where they were addressed by Macleod, along with Dr David Owen, then a young Labour MP, and Donald, later Lord Soper, the Methodist minister and still a vice-president of the charity.

They raised pounds 7,000, which was distributed to organisations working in the East End. "I was profoundly disappointed," Bill Sherman says. "I'd hoped, perhaps a bit ambitiously, to raise pounds 50,000. But everybody else thought it was marvellous."

The following year they conjured up the idea of a pilgrimage in reverse, starting in Canterbury and coming to London.

Michael Ramsay, the then Archbishop, and Macleod led the start of the walk which ended in a rally in Westminster Central Methodist Hall. "Most people say that the pilgrimage put Crisis at Christmas on the map," Mr Shearman says.

The appeals became an annual event and the organisation registered as a charity. In 1972, it held its first "open Christmas," offering shelter, food and support to the street homeless from a church in Lambeth. Now called simply Crisis, the charity works all year round with an annual budget of pounds 5.5m.

As it commemorates its 30th year with a star-studded fund-raising event at the Globe Theatre in London, the charity's chief executive, Shaks Ghosh, says the need for its work is as great as ever, even if the nature of the problem has changed.

Thirty years ago, the single homeless were mostly older men - the "gentlemen of the road". In the 1980s, single homelessness became a young people's problem. The last government's rough sleepers' initiative helped many find somewhere to live, although teenagers continue to end up on the streets, often as the result of family breakdowns or conflicts over boyfriends and drugs. Now the failure of the Care in the Community policy and its impact on the mentally ill is the top priority.

The average life expectancy of single homeless people is 42. They are 50 times more likely to be fatally assaulted and one in 50 in London suffers from tuberculosis. Hundreds more are homeless outside the capital, where the smaller numbers mean even less support is available to them.

At the Globe, as Rory Bremner, Kathy Burke, Jane Horrocks and the singer Beth Orton take to the stage, up to 600 people will flood on to the streets as the winter shelters in London close.

"The problem is entirely resolvable given proper resourcing," Shaks Ghosh says. She is optimistic that the Government's social exclusion unit will help tackle the enormous problem of communication between departments.

Bill Shearman ended his close involvement with the charity after the 1969 pilgrimage. "I was tired of it," he admits. "I didn't see myself as a social worker." He praises those who took it forward. "To start a thing is one thing, but tribute should be paid to those who built it up step by step." But he never expected it to be still going. "If you had asked us what we thought would happen in 30 years' time, we would have said that the problem would be solved," he says. What does it say about our society that it is not?"

Tickets for Under the Heavens at the Globe Theatre on Sunday, 29 March, are available, price pounds 5-pounds 25 from Ticketmaster 0171 344 4444. It will be preceded by a candle-lit procession from St John's Church, Waterloo.