There’s nothing like some jarring juxtaposition at Christmastime, when middle class mothers and determinedly festive students rush out of John Lewis and Build-a-Bear Workshops clutching extravagant gifts whilst destitute folk sit outside the store clutching their elbows from the cold. A 2017 ITV report states that homelessness is at an all time high in Exeter, the city having an incredibly high rate of rough sleeping (outside London), behind only Brighton and Hove. To be homeless during any time of the year sounds rough, to be homeless during the frigid, biting English winter is almost inconceivable to those of us who spend Christmas wrapped up in front of a fire sipping eggnog.
Certainly, charities such as St Petroc’s and Julian House, as well as some student run groups, have special outreach programmes for rough sleepers at this time of the year, but most are connected to the practicality of being homeless in the cold rather than being a Christmas initiative. It’s quite disappointing, really, how Christmas has turned into a commodified holiday focused on consumerism and competition over who could decorate their houses better – or who gets bigger presents under bigger trees – when the story of Christmas started with two destitute people seeking shelter. The family who offered Mary and Joseph shelter in their stables didn’t know they were carrying the son of God, instead they were a bedraggled couple with a heavily pregnant wife; would you open your door to a 21st century Mary and Joseph?
Christmas has always been about opening your doors to those seeking shelter
Nobody’s saying anyone should immediately abandon their eggnog and forget stuffing ever existed, but rather consider the fact that the homeless need a helping hand, especially during sub-zero temperatures. Perhaps student accommodation that requires students to clear out for the winter could be repurposed as temporary shelters (last year’s Safesleep scheme gave temporary beds to 82 people, of which 45 moved on to settled accommodation), as academic guests can easily afford hotel rooms in town. On an individual basis, instead of hoarding away the remains of your Christmas meal to make dry turkey sandwiches for the next two days, consider heating up a meal to the kid camped outside Boots, or perhaps donate an entire turkey to a homeless shelter.
Instead of thanking God it’s “not you”, perhaps this Christmas one could volunteer and donate to help rough sleepers on the icy streets
Band Aid’s (incredibly patronising) “Do They Know It’s Christmas” tells one to thank God, it’s “them and not you.” But there are thousands of rough sleepers across the UK who know very well it’s Christmas as they have to sleep on the streets facing fairy lights and decorative shopping centre trees. Instead of thanking God it’s “not you”, perhaps this Christmas one could volunteer and donate to help rough sleepers on the icy streets, not for individual self-satisfaction or piety but to drag Christmas back to its origins of two destitute people and a makeshift shelter, as well as to address the cruelty of ignoring the plight of the homeless in sub-zero temperatures, Christmas or otherwise. Maybe even consider volunteering all year round, and show some of the giving spirit that’s been slowly sapped away by Christmas consumerism.