On the streets, a crisis more visible than ever: Twenty-five years ago, young people reacted to the plight of London's down-and-outs. Christmas shelter is still needed, says Peter Kingston

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The Independent Online
The ya-boo-suckery that so often passes for debate in the House of Commons is mild stuff compared with the brickbats that whiz between the youth wings of the three main political parties. So anyone recruiting volunteers for a new charity might as well put on rabbit-skin breeches and jump into a bag of weasels as invite these three factions to work harmoniously together.

But it was not always thus. In 1967 the youth wings of the Tory, Labour and Liberal parties called a truce for a day and launched a combined effort for the poor and homeless. The late Iain Macleod, the senior Tory supporter of the youngsters' initiative, is credited with coming up with a name for the project: Crisis at Christmas.

Twenty-five years on, Crisis is running its now traditional open house for London down-and-outs at Europe's biggest Christmas shelter for the dispossessed. For the first time it also has similar ventures in Lancaster, Stoke, Southport, Barrow and Skelmersdale.

Anniversary celebrations are discreet. Adam Woolf, the charity's information officer, says Crisis felt it was inappropriate to give itself a self-congratulatory slap on the back. Instead, founding fathers and mothers were invited to a reunion. The list included the first treasurer, the Methodist peer Lord Soper, and Lords Prentice and Avebury, who supported the fledgling charity in 1967 as leading members of the Labour and Liberal parties respectively.

Crisis was not always the unalloyed success it now appears. In the first year, five sponsored walks converged on Hyde Park for a candle-light vigil on 17 December, but attempts to repeat this the following December flopped. None the less, the spark was not extinguished. Enthusiasm revived and by 1973 Crisis had become a registered charity.

In the current financial year Crisis aims to raise pounds 3.5m for distribution to day centres, hostels and resettlement schemes across Britain. But it is most famous for its Christmas scheme run for London street dwellers, known as 'the Open'.

This year 1,800 guests will spend Christmas week at three London centres. Outnumbering them will be the volunteers who feed them, tend their medical and dental problems, patch up their wounded feet, fit them with newer clothes and just listen to them. 'One of the important things for many of them is that they get a little bit of notice taken of them,' says Lady Henrietta Bathurst, who will be helping out for the sixth year this Christmas as a volunteer.

Lady Bathurst, 30, a professional embroideress, is again working on the night shift at one of the shelters, using her skills in the clothing department. She insists she is not a do-gooder, nor is she the only aristocrat among the volunteers - who come from all walks of life and parts of the country, particularly Scotland.

In the early and middle Eighties it was becoming difficult for Crisis and similar organisations to convince the public that there was a homelessness problem. That particular difficulty has vanished, says Mr Woolf. 'The problem has literally spilt out on to the streets.' Now the difficulty, worse each year, is finding a warehouse in central London big enough to be the main shelter.

Until Armstrong World Industries made its 11th-hour loan of a 28,000 sq ft warehouse, it had been feared that this year's effort might have to be cancelled. Finding 1,000 mattresses in reasonable condition is also proving much harder than in previous years, probably because of the recession. In the past, Crisis has received mattresses from hospitals, prisons, hotels and barracks. This year, however, many organisations seem to be holding on to their stock instead of renewing it.

Another disaster was narrowly averted when somebody at the Crisis headquarters in Whitechapel spotted a mistake in the notice advertising this year's venue, just as it was going to press. The venue is at 351 Caledonian Road, N1, from today until 30 December. The people at number 315 - the address that was almost

published in error - have been spared what could have been a challenging Christmas.

Despite the universal goodwill that the open Christmases have generated over the years, they are criticised by those who believe they are a distraction from the main task of finding a permanent solution to homelessness. And some sincerely believe it almost cruel to offer concentrated good cheer for one week a year, because it makes the inevitable return to the streets harder to endure.

Crisis replies that its work during the rest of the year is proof of its commitment to tackling the fundamental problems of homelessness. The experience of staff and volunteers has been that the vast majority of Christmas guests return to the streets feeling in some way better set up for the tough year ahead, and glad to have spent Christmas with Crisis.