Unusual Christmas

First published in Celebrating Sussex by

What persuades people to give up Christmas with their friends and families to help strangers in need? While most of us spend Christmas in an eggnog-fuelled haze of food and bad TV, a minority of Sussex residents choose to spend the holiday rather differently...

Claude Cohen is usually up at 6.30am on Christmas morning. While others are blearily preparing turkeys or watching children open their stockings, she heads to First Base Day Centre in Montpelier Place, Brighton to begin work.

As deputy manager and volunteer coordinator, she’s in charge of leading the team who will meet and care for the numerous rough sleepers who receive assistance from the centre.

They will ensure there are plenty of hot drinks and porridge ready, along with clean towels and toiletries.

Then the rest of the day’s tasks are distributed. These include helping cook and serve a hot meal, giving out donated Christmas presents and chatting to the many homeless people who come through the centre’s doors.

Christmas can be an extremely isolating time for rough sleepers – one of the main reasons Claude has chosen to spend her Christmases with First Base for the past three years.

“Christmas often evokes a sad reaction from many of our clients and being there to help make their day a little brighter is an extremely worthwhile thing to do,” she explains.

“It’s made me realise that for some, Christmas is the hardest time of the year rather than the happiest.”

First Base is part of Brighton Housing Trust, which looks at ways to combat homelessness in the city. “Working here has given me the opportunity to help co-ordinate a service which assists people on their journey from street homelessness to moving on with their lives.

“From coming in and having their basic needs met, clients can also access our daily groups on everything from art and photography to careers advice and catering training.

“The difference in someone’s confidence and self-esteem from coming in from the street to leaving the service makes it all worthwhile.”

It’s an extremely busy day for the staff and volunteers; the highlight for Claude is when St John Ambulance’s Homeless Service arrives with extra volunteers.

“This gives us sufficient staffing to ensure everyone has a present and allows us more time to spend chatting to the clients.”

The day eventually ends with a big clean-up operation, followed by a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake. Then it’s home to spend time with friends and family.

“They often perceive what I do to be more dangerous than it is,” says Claude.

“I think this is due to preconceived ideas as to what homeless people are like. But really, any one of us could become homeless.”

Helena Gackowska agrees. The University of Sussex graduate began volunteering at soup kitchens in London after befriending a homeless man at her local Tube station.

“His story and situation really struck a nerve with me,” she says.

When she moved to Brighton, she became a volunteer for the Clock Tower Sanctuary, where she will be working on Christmas Eve. The Sanctuary provides information, advice and support to young people aged between 16 and 25 who are homeless or insecurely housed.

The organisation offers a friendly safe space, food and drink, access to computers and the internet, signposting to housing, health, education, employment and social services – as well as practical and emotional support to help young people get their lives back on track.

No shift is the same for Helena. At times she will be supervising the bank of computers, at others helping people ring the job centre, speak to the police or prison services or access health services – “anything that helps them sort out their lives.”

As a 21-year-old she feels it is perhaps easier for the Clock Tower’s young clients to relate to her but she says she would recommend volunteering to everyone.

“It’s a great thing to do. You see what an effect you can have. It’s so good when you help people get back on track, play a part in them sorting themselves out.

“It’s not a lot of time to give up but the rewards are huge.” She is most looking forward to the atmosphere at the organisation when everyone sits down to enjoy a Christmas meal together.

“The people who come here have a lot to worry about so it will just be nice to see them all enjoying themselves – that’s what Christmas is about really.”

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