In the upstairs dormitory around 65 people, mainly men, sleep on camp beds, rough lumber frames over which a rectangle of canvas has been stretched and stapled. Each bed is furnished with a donated blanket and a pillow. The beds are crammed close together — many sought hospitality this Christmas. We set up 60 more beds on the ground floor. My task for the first two hours of my shift is to watch over the sleepers. I smell humanity. Not freshly showered, deodorized, brushed and flossed humanity. The air is heavy, a smell of armpit, groin, feet and hair, old clothes, beer and stale tobacco. The sleepers fill the room with a symphony of snoring, gentle waves of sound, high nasal stores, low grumbling snores, quiet almost imperceptible mid-range snores. The dim room feels like a stable filled with the warmth of sleeping animals, or a nursery of children, vulnerable and innocent. For the homeless, for rough sleepers, a quiet, warm, safe place to sleep is a gift.
I receive undeserved accolades for my ‘good deed’. ‘You are so good.’ ‘You are so kind.’ I try to explain that my motives are selfish. This is not a penance for me. I have no interest in three days of non-stop eating, of having to say ‘no more please,’ when a host offers me yet another bite of some expensive delicacy. I eat well every day of the year. I want for nothing. Anticipation of the gift exchange ritual fills me with dread and loathing. I, and everyone in my family and social circle, enjoy a life free of want. We want for nothing.
Some don’t wake until late in the morning. Some, making up for lost sleep, don’t wake ’til afternoon. They wake hungry. I saw no evidence for the ‘obesity epidemic’ among our guests. They reach under the bed for their shoes, for the plastic shopping bag or rucksack that contains all their possessions. Many tidy their cramped bed space before leaving in search of food. At the first floor canteen, food is available non-stop, all day. The man nearest me, a man in his forties from somewhere in eastern Europe, makes his bed carefully. He drapes the pink pilled blanket symmetrically, each overhang of equal length. Neatly he turns down the upper edge; the pink satin binding has become unstitched in places; he squares and straightens the pillow. He owns nothing other than the much worn clothes and shoes he stands up in, his toiletries and other odds and ends half-fill a plastic bag. He retains his dignity. He bows his head and bids me ‘Good Morning,’ and ‘Happy Christmas,’ he leaves slowly, he can smell breakfast, he anticipates the gnaw of one of his hungers easing.