Crisis is a charity that runs centres each Christmas to provide London’s homeless people with food, shelter, entertainment and companionship through the Christmas period. In fact they ran the biggest ever volunteer event in the UK, with 9,000+ volunteers over a 10-day period.
I’d never done anything like this before but, having read about the record numbers of people becoming homeless last year due to the financial crisis, I thought I would volunteer my time on the 23rd and 24th December - after all it was just two days.
I was part of the “Learning and Skills” team of volunteers who helped the homeless ‘clients’ improve specific skills such as literacy, numeracy, language skills, computer skills, artistic skills etc. Given my background, my main focus was to offer advice and help to people about finding work. After all, finding work and earning money has a knock-on effect on being homeless. Helping a homeless person find work could literary change their life.
But in reality, most people that come into the shelters are looking for a warm meal and people to chat to rather than for advice on how to improve their skills. So on Christmas Eve I found myself and a fellow volunteer (Carol), chatting to a homeless 60-year old Irish man over a cup of tea in the canteen of the school that was hosting the shelter.
Like most of the volunteers, we were intrigued to hear his story and find out “what happened” and how he became homeless. For Ronnie, his crisis began when he lost his job:
“I’ve spent my whole life in the building and construction industry - and I was doing well. In fact, just 12 months ago, I spent Christmas in the Carribean as 2007 had been such a good year. But then the property market collapsed with the economy, I lost my job and couldn’t find a new one.
I couldn’t keep up the rent payments and so I had to give up my apartment. So until I find a job and start earning, I’m now sleeping on the couch at the houses of friends or staying in hostels for homeless people. It’s amazing how much can change just in a year hey…?”
Carol and I didn’t know quite what to say. It was very sad seeing someone old enough to be your own father telling you about such a predicament. Especially when he seemed like just a ‘normal guy.’
I asked him how his search for work was going:
“I’m working hard to find work, but making little progress. All the things I used to do in the past no longer work: looking in the papers, visiting job centres, talking to friends and contacts, spending time in the pubs frequented by construction workers; none of that’s working.
But I know there are jobs out there because of the work going on in preparation for the London 2012 Olympics - new hotels, apartments and shopping centres are being built and there is construction going on and there is work. But I can’t seem to get to it.”
Having asked him some questions about the precise type of work he was searching for and the kind of money he needed to earn to get him back on his feet, I said:
“Ronnie, give us 30 minutes and we’ll try and see what we can do to help.Just come and find us in the learning and skills area where all the computers are in half an hour.”
As we walked away, Carol looked at me to say “Sital, it’s Christmas Eve and we know nothing about construction - so what are we going to magic up in 30 minutes?!?”
She was concious that we may be breaking one of the rules we’d been told about in our briefing as volunteers - not to make any promises to the clients that we could not keep. So understandably, she was worried I’d made a promise we couldn’t keep.
“Don’t worry Carol, there is always another way.” I said rather boldly.
Over the next 30 minutes, I spoke to a couple of contacts over the phone and got through to two recruiters from the construction industry willing to speak with Ronnie to offer him advice and help. Carol found and spoke with the recruitment agency handling the major chunk of the construction vacancies for the 2012 London Olympics project and got advice on the best way to apply for those roles. Plus we found 3 vacancies which were relevant to Ronnie advertised online - albeit not necessarily in the exact location he was looking for.
As agreed, Ronnie came to see us after 30 minutes to see what we’d found out and was understandably pleased to hear about the contacts and roles we had found.
As he left for the day, he shook my hand and said:
“Crisis? What Crisis…?!
So much can change in one year…… let’s hope this is the start of it for me! Thank you.”
It made my day. And in the process it taught me some lessons about dealing with any type of crisis - career or otherwise:
1. Don’t let your pride get in the way
Ronnie was a proud upstanding Irish man who had fallen on hard times. But he didn’t let his pride stop him coming to a homeless shelter for the first time in his life. He wasn’t too proud to let two strangers half his age offer their help.
How about you? Are you allowing others to help you or is your pride (or ego) getting in the way?
2. Be flexible and open-minded
While Ronnie was intent on working and living in London, I found what seemed like a perfect role in Sheffield (about 150 miles north of London). With no family ties in London and a much lower cost of living up in Sheffield, I convinced Ronnie that it was an option worth considering.
To his credit, he was open-minded and said “yes, let’s give it a go and apply. You never know where these things can lead you.”
What a great attitude. And that’s exactly the attitude you must have when faced with a crisis. Be open to different roles, opportunities, ideas and career options. They may not be what you originally wanted, but may lead to bigger and better things in the future.
3. Be willing to unlearn and re-learn to get ahead
Many of the jobs we found for Ronnie required him to have an email address and apply for jobs online. But despite the fact he had never touched a computer in his life, he agreed to let Carol teach him how to use a computer, the internet and set up an email account.
Regardless of the economic recovery, the world has completely changed in the last 24 months and you won’t be able just to go back to the way it used to be before the recession. You’ll need new ways of running a business, new ways to lead and engage teams, new ways of managing your career and new ways to approach job searching.
After all, if an old fashioned 60-year old construction worker is willing to push himself outside his comfort zone and learn new ways of doing things, what’s stopping you?
4. Count your blessings
Spending the two days at the homeless shelter last year was a great reality check for me. At a time when we’re worried about the economy whilst at the same time eating, partying and celebrating at Christmas, it was a sobering experience to see how fortunate most of us really are.
So whatever ‘crisis’ you may find yourself in, remember to count your blessings because it probably doesn’t compare to the challenges faced by many others - homeless or otherwise.
I don’t know what came of Ronnie after he left the shelter on Christmas Eve last year. For obvious reasons of safety, Crisis have strict rules on exchanging any personal details with the homeless clients and so I don’t know what happened next to him and how his job search went. But I do know that anyone willing to push themselves outside their comfort zone and learn new things, be open-minded and allow others to help them usually go a lot further in life than those that don’t - and I hope things did change for the better for him.
So if over the holiday season you find yourself stressing about your own ‘crisis’, do try to remember Ronnie’s story and his message. The career rut you’re stuck in, your flagging job search campaign or your financial woes may feel like a ‘crisis’, but often aren’t really. Neither is burning the Christmas lunch or the family row caused by Aunt Flossy on Christmas Day.
Just remember to wear a big smile and tell yourself, “So much can change in one year let’s hope this is the start of a change in fortune for me!”
And who knows, this time next year there’s every chance you’ll be sitting here saying: “Crisis? What Crisis?!”
(I'm volunteering with Crisis again this year on 23rd and 24th December before spending time with the family over Christmas.....so this will be my last post until after Christmas. So very best wishes for the festive season!)