It’s 6am, I’ve been awake for 24 hours, and I’m deep into a table tennis tournament with five homeless men. When I stepped up to the table I’d anticipated a comfortable victory. Like all the cool kids, ping pong is my game. As I tocked the opening serve over the net, I wondered if I should take a dive. After all, these guys are homeless, and as a volunteer it wouldn’t look good to school them in the art of miniaturised court sports. The decision is abruptly snatched out of my hands. My opponent, an overweight man in his forties who sleeps under a footbridge, blasts the ball full pelt into my crotch.
Running into the Forrest Gump of homeless men is hardly the first surprise of my few night shifts volunteering at the Crisis at Christmas rough sleepers centre. I arrived expecting a few damp-damaged rooms filled with thirty-or-so steel-framed beds and a close-knit crew of insomniac volunteers to ladle out tea and soup come morning. Instead the centre is spread across three floors of a disused office building and kitted out with a cafeteria, computers, a DVD area, giant chess and Jenga, and anything else to keep the sleepless guests distracted through the night. There are around 100 volunteers (which means over the course of my shifts about 100 conversations for me to make awkward) to look after 400 rough sleepers. The sleeping floors resemble makeshift field hospitals with their endless rows of camp beds and variety of troubling smells.
Throughout the night, as I move from post to post (and desperately avoid toilet duty), I meet guest after guest who seem to be competing in their efforts to defy my expectations.
I meet Marius, who, despite sleeping in a Kingston car park for the past 3 months, endlessly praises the virtues of England over his native Poland. Jobs there? ‘No good.’ Food there? ‘No good.’ Nice scenery? ‘No no no.’ A stolen passport prevents him from finding work or claiming benefits. He’s a qualified engineer. From his grubby raincoat he pulls out receipts for scrap metal that’s paid for his pair of smart phones charging under the table. Why two phones, Marius? A wide grin opens up beneath his moustache. ‘Because this is England!’
John, not much older than me and completely blind, engages me in a conversation about Bret Easton Ellis and J.G. Ballard too intellectual to follow at 3 o clock in the morning. Although his fondness for the debauched use of Habitrail hamster tubing in American Psycho frightens me a little, his critical insight into his reading (or rather, the few audio books stocked at his dependency centre) outstrips any university student I’ve ever taught in my classes.
Later on there’s Kris, who perseveres for what feels like hours in teaching me to make paper aeroplanes (I still can’t do it. Don’t tell him). At 4.30am he follows me on my outside duty with a kite composed of toilet roll tubes, cling film, and a long spool of decorative ribbon. We try repeatedly to get it airborne in the freezing wind blowing off the Thames docks until finally it swings down past my face like an axe and crumples on the car park tarmac. Kris deems it my fault and compares me to Charlie Brown. Later he tells me he made the kite because he’s frightened to go to sleep.
After all, these fun moments don’t paint a full picture. There’s the man who suffers an alcoholic fit and is taken away in an ambulance. Dylan (named after his Bob Dylan t-shirt) paces the car park for much of the night screaming at people only he can see. While I’m supervising a sleeping floor, one of the guests jerks awake and asks me, ‘Have you ever seen a dead alcoholic?’ It’s a tough question to deal with at 5.30am. He doesn’t go back to sleep, and begs me to stay near him.
Stereotypes of homeless people are no good here. Not only are they real people dealing with poverty, illness, and addiction, but they’re also struggling to align themselves with the rest of society. All over the centre phone chargers trail from electrical sockets. Guests pace through the night with headphones and Bluetooth headsets clamped to their ears. Every screen in the computer area is logged into Facebook or playing the latest YouTube video of an unfortunate looking cat.
One volunteer, this her fourth consecutive year, puts it into perspective. ‘Everyone is just one bad decision away from losing it all. It only takes one crisis.’ Gazing bleary-eyed along the rows of camp-beds, it’s difficult not to wonder what bad decisions brought all these people to this place.
The sun’s on its way up, and the first planes of the day are roaring what feels like inches overhead to land at London City Airport. I battle back from 4 match-points down to win the first table tennis game, then lose in the next round. As he celebrates with his friends, I shake the victor’s hand and make him a promise. I’ll be back tomorrow for a rematch.
(He beat me again)