It may be a draughty warehouse but to rough sleepers it offers the 'one holiday of the year'

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The Independent Online

John, a one-time cat burglar with a passion for antiques, yesterday walked into a draughty warehouse in London's East End to enjoy his 17th Christmas with friends.

"The steak pie is delicious," John said to the disparate group of men sitting around the table. They were all "guests" at the temporary shelter that has been provided by Crisis, the charity for the homeless, for the past 30 years.

John, aged 70, is not homeless. He has a "nice bedsit" off the Old Kent Road in south-east London. But he regards his eight-day stay at the shelter as his "one holiday a year". Like many of the other visitors, he has not been blessed with an easy life.

His father died when he was five, his brothers were killed in the Second World War, and his mother drowned herself when he was 17. Much of his childhood was spent in care. Hotels then became his home as he worked in a range of jobs, from wine waiter to breakfast chef or hall porter.

It was a chance to see "how the other half live". But John also believes it was partly to blame for his downfall and the five prison sentences he served for stealing antiques.

"When I worked in the hotel world I saw the other side of life and I fell in love with beautiful things. I developed a terrible liking for antiques.

"I would go out and steal antiques, bronze statues, fine paintings and valuable china from rich people's homes. I would take them to my bedsit and gloat over them. The antiques were always recovered by the police. But I spent some years in and out of jail," he said.

John managed to get his life back on track when, on being released from prison, a council officer found him a small bedsit, where he has stayed for the past 22 years.

"I still come here ... I am a bachelor and live alone. I regard it as my one holiday a year.

"You get wonderful friendships from the volunteers, wonderful food and care given to you," he said.

John will be joined by about 1,000 other homeless people, as well as those surviving in hostels, sleeping on friends' floors or living in solitary flats, who are expected to visit the temporary shelter before it closes on 30 December.

Along with free meals and a bed, they are able to consult doctors, dentists, chiropodists, hairdressers, masseurs, opticians and therapists. An internet café will also allow visitors to search for family they have not been in touch with for years, so that they can consider renewing contact with their relatives via e-mail.

Shaks Gosh, chief executive of Crisis, said: "Through the internet, individuals will have a chance to make the first tentative steps towards repairing broken relationships and healing the wounds created by that loss."