Around a year ago I was sorting a chicken. It was spatchcocked, spine-out and spread-eagled, rubbed down with garlic and sage butter, then sprinkled with salt and pepper. The potatoes were peeled and,ready to kiss some hot oil, the oven was up high and ready to go. It was the start of advent, signalled by fresh cranberries and a glass or so of mulled wine. Think cinnamon and tinsel and you are halfway there. I remember this moment so vividly because it was at this eager stage of preparatory excitement that the doorbell rang.
‘’Good evening, I’m a volunteer from Shelter, I was just wondering if you had a spare moment to talk about homelessness.’’
My reaction to lintel-side bucket-shaking is usually well-honed by childhood warnings: do not speak to strangers and never answer the door to someone that you are uncertain of. The door-knocker from Shelter – we will call him Chris – explained why he was there. He was volunteering to raise funds to give beds and rehabilitation to the homeless. It was an awful night, his red ‘Shelter’ jacket was sodden. The weather offered a cruel irony. And with little better to do than anticipate my roast chicken, worrying about my bread sauce seemed suddenly tasteless and trivial.
Adding to the irony, my flatmate loudly complained that the flat was getting cold from the open front-door, I toldChris that he should probably come inside and dry his coat for a minute. As soon as I did, I felt regret at further delaying my roast my chicken. This is probably when a selfless pillar of society should have stepped into the spotlight, inviting Chris inside to share in our meal, a glass of something warming and our common humanity. As it was, I had carefully propped myself between Chris’s morally astute gaze and my chicken, as if it were under attack.I won’t apologise for sending Chris on his way once his jacket was dry. We weren’t really his target audience really he said, but when I asked Chris if I could give him some change, he said that they couldn’t take cash on the door,only direct debit. It made me rethink the guilt which I experienced sitting down to dinner. Although in times of plenty guilt leads us to festive generosity, it might be more productive to be just as open-hearted all year round.
Chris’s message was simple he had recently graduated and started volunteering for Shelter, since then he had only seen things on the streets getting worse. Homelessness was up 15% in 2017 in England alone, there were almost 5000 rough-sleepers. There may be slightly more, owing to the difficulties in categorising and surveying rough-sleepers. Brighton and Hove and Westminster, rate consistently highest among the levels of rough-sleepers by constituency. Homelessness in typically affluent areas is all the more shocking for their wealthy reputations. Those 260 human beings sleeping rough inWestminster contrast with the lives of glamorous locals Joan Collins, Tom Hiddleston and Mark Ronson. My warm flat, my friends, my chicken, all of them threw a fresh angle on a problem which for many of us is only on show atChristmas. Why Christmas? Perhaps because it is only in times of plenty that we recognise those with less. Edinburgh council’s annual housing and food scheme‘’Edinburgh Cheer’’ exemplifies this festive charitable spirit, but the problems facing the homeless require more than a fleeting instance of festive guilt.
As Chris left my flat, he knew that he had influenced my outlook on homelessness. I have dwelled on that moment of guilt since eating that chicken but really I am not sure that that you should feel guilty at Christmas: homelessness is not your fault. Rather, we are at fault for believing that only being sensitive, philanthropic and compassionate for one month a year is acceptable. Chris offered far more than a tinsel-wrapped bucket shaken outside a tube station, he brought education and human sincerity into my home with no ulterior motive. Chris’s genuine benevolence made me care and reassess my guilt: compassion should combat homelessness not just at Christmas, but every single day.