Having read Agustina’s insightful blog shortly after I completed mine, I wondered whether I should still go ahead and publish my take on the experience with Crisis over Christmas. After some deliberation, I concluded that perhaps it’s good that so much detail on homelessness and the organisation itself has already been provided so that, at least for once, I won’t have a word count problem!
Most importantly, each of us took away a slightly different message from our time spent with Crisis as we volunteered at different centres, on different days and helped different guests.
The price of avoiding the system
Six months without a job, four months with no money and three months living on the street. Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be alone over Christmas in the UK when you can barely introduce yourself in English?
Emil (name has been changed) is only 23 years old but things went terribly wrong for him in the split of a second. There was a fight at the building site where he worked, some alcohol was involved and as a result an employer got offended and a young man’s pride was hurt. As time passed by, it became difficult to turn things around; much of which was the result of something as simple as a missing ID.
Since the enlargement of the EU in 2004, Poles (along with nationals from the 7 other Central and Eastern Europe member states) can legally work and live in the UK; however, a staggering number of them are working unreported, due to the neglect of employers and the misinformation and carelessness of workers.
In 2008 the government became stricter about working illegally; imposing larger fines on businesses that hire people with no right to work in the UK and increasing checks on companies in an attempt to tackle illegal working. At the time I thought this was refreshing news which would benefit all. That was until I met Emil.
Emil was never issued a passport and he travelled to the UK on his national ID. As he later discovered, a copy of an ID can only be obtained from his hometown in Poland and to apply for a passport at the Polish embassy in London you need to have your national ID as a proof of identity along with almost £300. Of course, he had neither. He is therefore now unable to gain employment, claim any benefits and pay his bills. He is homeless.
Breaking the silence
On my first day with Crisis on the 23rd of December, I was asked whether I could speak Polish since there is high demand for a translator. Walking down the corridor I wondered who I would meet first. Emil was sat on a chair, his head was down and he clearly had no interest in looking at me. He was different from many other guests at the centre – he wasn’t confident and loud. His clothes were clean and his face was shaven. You wouldn’t be able to tell that he has been homeless for some time now.
As I approached him, I introduced myself and told him that I will wait with him until the dentist arrives, so that I can help him explain his painful tooth. Although I was eager to ask him a million questions, we sat in silence until he told me “Nothing will ever be the same, my life is over!”. My heart sank.
In London about 28% of rough sleepers come from Central and Eastern Europe and over 30% of them came from Poland (Broadway, 2012). Many of them are episodically homeless, often a result of a short term crisis (e.g. loss of a job, binge drinking) and this is where Crisis’ assistance is invaluable.
Without professionals offering their specialist advice to guests at Crisis (and offering referrals to other organisations) a first time rough sleeper like Emil would be unable to resolve his ID issues during the post-Christmas period.
The power of small gestures
After a visit to the dentist, two hours spent browsing passport information online, a TB scan, a trip to the hairdresser, lunch in the canteen and three games of Jenga, the communication between Emil and I finally became much easier. Nevertheless, I was still puzzled as to why Emil did not want to talk to any of the other Polish ‘guests’. I was also curious to know why he felt that he cannot trust Polish social workers and why he eventually chose to open up to me, a total stranger.
Giving the guest encouragement and hope is sometimes all that a volunteer can offer, but I have since discovered that this can go much further than one might think. Outsiders like myself who perhaps don’t know every single rule in the book, but can apply some common sense and offer a different take on a matter than a qualified adviser, can bring a much needed fresh perspective.
Emil didn’t want to cooperate with Polish speaking advisers because he believed that their primary motivation is to send homeless Poles back to Poland, as this is how they meet their targets and receive commission. I don’t know enough about this to confirm whether it is accurate or not. Emil was also reluctant to receive any help from his Polish-speaking friends as they were responsible for encouraging him to drink more and were the ones who he blamed for losing control of his life in the first place.
As a volunteer at Crisis you are not allowed to keep in touch with the guests (for security reasons) so I can only hope that the time we spent together and the notes that I prepared for him in both languages will open some doors and push him in the right direction going forward.
From a personal perspective, I am glad that I was able to do some work on the ground, meet some inspiring people and learn more about a wider Polish community in London. As a next step, I would like to explore how to engage at a slightly earlier stage with my fellow countrymen and how to make a bigger impact through prevention rather than just the treatment of homelessness.