I’m a bit of a calamity first thing in the morning, body brain and limbs each embark on their own unrelated task. I try and coordinate myself but the individual parts of me have none of it, they just get on with their own thing, making me a jabbering flailing mess. Wednesday morning is by far the worse because I have to get up early and try to function. Wednesday is the day I work the breakfast shift at FCENS, the emergency night shelter that operates in Waltham Forest over the winter months. The alarm goes off, I tumble out of bed and try to get ready without waking my other half and the dog, a task at which I often fail at in a spectacular fashion. Just before Christmas I accidentally pressed the SOS button on the burglar alarm, waking not only my other half and the dog, but most of the neighbours. I drop things, trip over my own feet and swear at myself loudly when I get frustrated at my inability to complete simple tasks like putting on pants or walking. When I eventually make it out if the house, I get on my trusty six speed folding bike and make my way to Wood Street, where the shelter is based, or at least where it is based for Tuesday evenings and Wednesday Mornings. On arrival, I walk in through the front doors, try to remember what my name is, attempt to vocalise a “Good morning” and then try to get through the shift without burning the building down.
I’ve been volunteering at the shelter for a few years now so the morning routine has become semi automatic. Put out the breakfast stuff, cereal, jam, chocolate spread, bowls and plates. Stick bread in the toaster and try to remember to take it out before it catches fire. Pack away sleeping bags and pillows, sort out the laundry and do the dishes. There are four of us on the breakfast shift so we usually have two in the kitchen and two in the sleeping hall packing away the kit and cleaning up. All simple tasks that feel more complicated due to the early hour. One of the guests found me wrestling with a swing bin this week. I was trying to change the bin bag but my morning brain just couldn’t figure out how to find the end of the bag that opens. He very gently took the bag off me, opened it up and placed it in the bin. He looked at me, winked and asked if I needed a tea. Him and his mate had a bit of a laugh at me, handed me the tea, and we discussed how edible the left over onion bhajis from the night before might be. One of the things I really enjoy about my shifts is having a laugh with the guests, and chatting with them as we go about our cleaning cooking duties.
The shelter is housed in a different building each night of the week. It moves around Waltham Forest like a gigantic silent machine operating under the cover of darkness. In the evenings a small army of volunteers occupy the building, cook for the 35 guests, and turn the space (usually church halls) in to dormitory’s. In the morning everything is cleaned and packed away, the guests leave and the building is returned back to how it was, with no indication that it was home for 35 people overnight. I’m under no illusions, there are all kinds of people who live on the streets, some good and some bad, but walk down any residential road and knock on a few random doors and you will find the same thing, the same kinds of people, some good and some bad. The only thing that makes us different is that some of us have a roof over our heads and some don’t. People who are homeless are not some kind of sub tribe, a different type of human, they are you and me if we had no jobs and savings to fall back on
Since I’ve been a volunteer at FCENS, my outlook and opinion on homelessness has completely changed. I would always refer to rough sleepers as homeless people, but I’ve changed my thinking now and realised that they are people first and homeless second. I don’t even like the term rough sleeper any more, because the reality is, not only do they not have anywhere to sleep, they don’t have anywhere to eat, sit, wash, do laundry, relax or do any of the things that people like me take for granted. I used to think that my job at the shelter was tidying and burning toast, but that’s not really it. My job at the shelter is talking to the guests, drinking tea with them, looking them in their eyes and treating them like people, because for a lot of the time, out there in the wider world, they are treated like a problem and not a person.
Volunteering at the shelter is a big part of my life in Walthamstow, and that’s because, like it or not, homelessness is just as much a part of E17 as the tea, cake and pubs I usually write about. I often see people on twitter or facebook asking how they could help someone they have seen on the streets of E17, but I’ve also seen comments from people asking what can be done about homelessness in Walthamstow. The answer is simple, nothing can be done about homelessness, but there is plenty that can be done for the people going through it. If you would like to find out more about this amazing local charity you can check their web site, or if you are in and around Walthamstow, pick up a copy of the January 2016 Elist and read an interview with founder member Norman Coe.