Many people have altruistic intentions and many often endeavour to realise them, but often other personal and professional commitments get in the way.
But at this time of year when temperatures drop and the majority of the nation is mulling over what to buy family and friends for Christmas, chartered accountant Mike Tuohy is gearing up to spread a little festive spirit in the direction of the homeless.
Indeed, he challenges anyone to do one night shift with him, simply to rid them of the stereotypical image of the homeless person as an old drunkard.
‘This isn’t true. I’ve met some amazing people who have just come upon hard times. Lots are educated, well-read people, who previously enjoyed high standards of living and have just fallen upon hard times for one reason or another,’ Tuohy explains.
About 21 years ago the Middlesex-based chartered accountant decided that instead of visiting his parents for Christmas, he wanted to do something different. He telephoned Capital Radio and they recommended he speak to Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, working particularly for those who have no legal right to accommodation.
Tuohy contacted Crisis and did his first night shift at a shelter for the homeless and since then has dedicated several weeks a year to the cause.
Since then he has given over probably the most family-orientated week of every year, – 23 to 30 December – to work in the Crisis Open Christmas project. For the last 10 years Tuohy has been shift leader responsible for allocating duties to some 250 volunteers at the project.
He even met his wife who runs the administration office at the project.
The night shift starts at around 10pm and involves looking after the guests, as Tuohy refers to them, calming down the high-spirited and sorting out any health problems people are suffering from. The nightshift also has to cook breakfast before they head back to their own beds. It can be one of the most testing shifts. ‘Those who are depressed or suffer from some illness usually stay awake, so we spend time chatting to them and generally keeping them company,’ explains Tuohy.
He is now a board member of Crisis’ organisational committee, which means putting aside two or three evenings a month. He has also been a dedicated volunteer of a variety of organisations, spending at least two months of the year helping those less fortunate than himself.
He used to help run a clothing van that went around London collecting and distributing clothing to the needy every weekend.
And he also helps organise a holiday project for a children’s charity.
Every summer he and his colleagues take children from London’s inner city areas to a holiday camp in Colchester for four weeks.
It might sound like a cliche, but in his own words, ‘it’s an incredibly rewarding job’.
This year, however, Tuohy is involved in the bigger picture.
The government’s Rough Sleepers Unit has teamed up with four of the leading homeless charities, Crisis, Centrepoint, National Homeless Alliance and the Salvation Army, to launch the nation-wide campaign, Change A Life.
The Rough Sleepers Unit was set up in 1999 in a bid to reduce the number of people sleeping rough to as near zero as possible.
The government unveiled its Change A Life campaign in November urging the public to help people who are homeless. The project’s goal is to make it easier for anyone wishing to contribute time or money. But what is special about this project is that it is ‘not just for Christmas’. Change A Life hopes to do as its title says – get homeless people back on track.
Neil Churchill, deputy chief executive of Crisis, says: ‘We don’t want to tell people what to do but we can encourage them to find ways of helping in a more long term manner.’
Tuohy makes a point of explaining the difference between homeless and rough sleepers. ‘Only a third a truly homeless, the rest are people who’ve been sleeping on friends’ floors.’
A lot of rough sleepers have chosen the streets over homeless shelters preferring their independence to the strict rules laid down in shelters.
Indeed the campaign was launched on the back of new research revealing that 85% of beggars are addicted to drugs; 45% use heroin, 35% crack and 18% cocaine. Sixty-nine percent of people begging said they were in receipt of benefits and 49% were sleeping rough.
Mo Mowlam, Cabinet Office minister responsible for ensuring government policies to reduce social exclusion are implemented effectively, said: ‘Turning ‘exclusion’ into ‘inclusion’ is a lot harder than just a few warm words. This innovative and exciting campaign shows just how committed the government is to provide real solutions to difficult issues.’
People’s time is what the project really cherishes, but gifts and money are also greatly welcomed. Change A Life will then match individual’s interests and abilities to local homelessness projects where they can give their time, gifts or money to help people sleeping rough rebuild their lives.
Myriad skills are needed such as IT, counselling, driving and cooking.
So, whatever ability you have you can be sure Change A Life will find a niche for those willing to hand over some of their time.
As for the other skills you need to do a job like this, Tuohy says that there’s nothing you cannot learn on the job.
‘You need patience, understanding and a caring attitude. Give it a go, you’ve got nothing to lose and you only get out what you put in. But, you do have to be prepared to muck in,’ he advises.
But volunteer work does not even have to be on a consistent basis. Volunteers can work once a week, once a month or just a few afternoons a year. Companies and organisations are also encouraged to donate old office furniture, surplus goods and equipment either to help a homeless person set up or furnish a new homeless site. Change A Life will channel all donations of time, gifts or money to where it is most needed.
So one way to prevent visitations from the spirits of Christmases past, present and future coming your way could be to make a phone call and take some action.
THE CHANGE A LIFE PROJECT: HOW YOU CAN HELP
Projects throughout the country need many varied skills to help them carry out their work. Make a phone call and you will be put in contact with a local homelessness charity. Your gift
Any surplus goods, equipment or other items you no longer use could help get a homeless person to get back on their feet or help a charity in its day-to-day running.
If you prefer to make a cash donation, your gift will be divided evenly amongst the four charities to help them continue their work.
Tel: 0845 6061623. Calls cost 4.5p per minute or you can visit the website www.changealife.org.uk.
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