I asked a colleague the other day about his plans for Christmas. He said his own and his partner’s parents, his brother and several other friends and relatives would be descending on his home for several days of festivities, good food and great companionship.
The idea of a dozen or more people in my own home is my personal Nightmare at Christmas! I am no Scrooge, and “bah humbug” is not part of my lexicon, but I prefer a quiet, relaxing time. There are people who I love who I would have liked to have seen at Christmas but for various reasons, including distance, were present only in thought.
For many, however, Christmas is a lonely time and increasingly harsh winters makes it particularly difficult. I would ask you to consider for a moment those people living without shelter. How do they survive with temperatures well below freezing for days on end? In spite of the very effective efforts by local authorities to end rough sleeping, there remain a small number of men and women who still sleep out in the coastal towns in the south-east.
In Brighton and Hove we are very fortunate to have relatively few people on the streets, a testimony to the work that has been led by Brighton and Hove City Council. But when temperatures fall well below freezing, a range of organisations including Brighton Housing Trust, the City Council, CRI, and the Salvation Army, come together to provide emergency shelter for those who might otherwise die as a result of the cold.
The Cold Weather Shelter traditionally opens around Christmas or early in the New Year, but this year it opened in late November. And while the shelter has in previous years remained open for 7 to 10 days, this year it has already been open for almost 3 weeks. I am always hugely impressed by the dedication and selflessness of staff from BHT and other organisations who offer to work throughout the night to provide shelter which is safe, warm and dry.
Christmas Day presents its own particular challenges, not normally related to the weather. For most, as with my colleague and his dozen or so relatives, Christmas is about family and it is about children. But for many of the clients who live in BHT properties, Christmas can be a reminder, not of what they have, but what they have lost. For some, Christmas is not a reminder of happy times but of times of neglect, deprivation and violence. It is known that incidents of domestic violence increases at Christmas. One can understand why the pain of Christmas Past is anaethnatised by alcohol and drugs.
For others, Christmas Present is a time to reflect on what might have been had their lives not been derailed through mental ill-health, addiction, family breakdown, violence and homelessness. Many years ago I worked at St Dunstan’s, the home for blind ex-servicemen. Extra effort was made to make Christmas the happiest possible time. Similar efforts continue today in all support services, many of which will remain open throughout the Christmas period.
BHT itself had almost 100 members of staff and volunteers working on Christmas Day, and many more over the holiday period. Each one tried to make Christmas that little bit more special for our clients.
We are all familiar with the expression ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ and we all understand the message that animal charities are trying to make. It is one thing to be excited by a cute puppy on Christmas morning, but the responsibility of dog ownership is a year-round and expensive undertaking. I sometimes feel that homelessness has become a ‘Christmas issue’ when the harsh reality is that it exists year-round.
While many reflect about homelessness over Christmas, I would ask you to think about homelessness on another day of the year, perhaps 23rd June. “Why 23rd June?” you may ask. There’s actually nothing special about that date other than it is another day in the year when people will be homeless or lonely. The work of charities like BHT, CRI, Sussex Central YMCA, Brighton YMCA, to name just a few, continues throughout the year.
That is just one reason why we are grateful to the Argus Christmas Appeal for its support to our clients, from January to December. You can support the BHT Christmas Appeal by sending a donation to BHT, 144 London Road, Brighton BN1 4PH or go online at by clicking this link.
(This is the text of an article that appeared in the Brighton Argus on 30th December 2010)