at the inn.
by MAUREEN VINCENT
TAKING the children to see the Christmas
lights? They will he enchanted by all the expensive decorations, the gaily-lit shopping centres, the Christmas trees, giant reindeer and jolly snowmen.
But I hope, for their sakes, that they do not happen to catch sight of a huddled figure sheltering from the wind in some darkened doorway; or some white-faced and bedraggled teenager, clutching a cheap coat around herself, hands clendhed in her pockets, head drooping with exhaustion and despair.
Because children always ask those unanswerable questions. "Why is that old man sleeping there?" "Why does that girl look so sad?" Do we know any answers? Do we care what the answers may be? Crisis at Christmas believes that we do.
Crisis at Christmas is all inter-denominational all-party campaign, first started by the late lain Macleod, knd intended to focus attention on the plight of Britain's 50,000 homeless people, particularly at this season of the year when we commemorate another occasion when there was "no room" for a homeless family.
Christmas is the one time when everyone wants to be at home. The situation of those with nowhere to call their own, always desperate, takes on an added poignancy as more fortunate families rush around making their excited plans and loving preparations for the festival.
At a meeting to launch this year's campaign, Jon Snow, co-ordinator of the New Horizon Centre in London, pointed out that the last two years had shown "dramatic increases in the number of kids adrift in Central London."
He described young people of 15, 16, 17 and 18 "going to seed in the centre of an utterly hostile city, in which statutory social services deny all responsibility."
Sue, aged 16, is an example of the kind of thing which happens so regularly that her pathetic story is a commonplace. She came to London from the provinces, to escape
a broken home from which she had already had to be taken into care several times. She had £3, which went on her first night's bed and breakfast. She tried to find a job next day, but without success.
She went to the police for help, and was sent on to the Emergency Social Security Office. There they were unable to offer her a bed because the hostel was full. In any case, she was 20 years younger than their average inmate.
So they gave her 50p and told her to come back in the morning. She drifted up to the West End and met up with a group of homeless teenagers who invited her back to the derelict house in which they were living,
"When we came across her," says Mr. Snow, "she was already pregnant with a child well on the way to going into care like its mother."
The real tragedy about Sue is that she made no conscious decision to opt out of life. She never really had a choice. Unfortunately, this is true of a great proportion of the homeless in Britain.
This week at least 8.000 teenagers in the London area will sleep rough each night. They drift. living from hand to mouth and from day to day. hopeless and cynical, most of them victims of the pressures of modern society — lost, old before their time. But the problem is by no means confined to teenagers, or indeed to the London area, Single people of both sexes and all ages, even whole families, share the despair of those with nowhere to go and no hope of finding anywhere. They are to be found all over the country.
They sleep in parks, derelict buildings. under bridges. in station waiting rooms, in seedy all-night cafes and clubs. We who are luckier tell ourselves that they arc hippy drop-outs who want to live like that. It makes it easier for us.
But had we come from broken families, approved schools. borstal or prison, would we be any more capable of picking ourselves off the floor?
So what can we possibly do about it, even if we do care? It is, unfortunately, quite use• less to console ourselves that the social services will cope. The vast majority of the homeless, like Sue. fall through the not too closely woven mesh of the social services net.
This is just why Crisis at Christmas has started its campaign. The aim is not only to give as many homeless people as possible a roof over their heads and food for Christmas, but also to pay for the setting up of hostels and the provision of rehabilitation workers throughout the year.
Miss Jane Terry, a Catholic, is chairman of Crisis at Christ
mas. lain Macleod's widow, Baroness Macleod, is sponsor. ing the campaign, together with Lord Beaumont of Whitley, Lord Super. the Rt. Hon Reginald Prentice, Nicholas Scott. M.P. and John Pardoe, M.P.
Miss Terry first became involved with the problem of single homeless people while working at a hostel for them in Devon; she had been closely involved with Crisis at Christmas since 1969.
She is particularly concerned about the single homeless. "'there is no real machinery for helping them," she said.
"They arc discriminated against so much. If you have a dependant there are so many ways of getting on to a housing list, but if you are single and alone there is no chance.
"Homelessness is really a convenient way of categorising a collection of people who are actually made up of a number of different groupings. Many are former mental health patients who have been discharged from hospitals, have experienced very little real aftercare, and consequently become homeless.
"There are the ex-prisoners who have failed to find a home on leaving prison. To these must now be added the young people who come to London, find no accommodation, and automatically become part of the capital's floating homeless population."
Most have one thing in common, admittedly, and that is their inadequacy. Society today demands more and more on material and mental levels. Most of our homeless start with unfair handicaps. Even to catch up With society's basic requirements is often too great a task for them to hope to accomplish without expert help.
Last weekend there was a sponsored pilgrimage to raise funds and draw attention to the problem. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Michael Ramsey. walked the first few miles out of Canterbury on a pilgrimage which finished in London on Sunday. Many children and youth club members took part.
There will be a sponsored "fast-in" from today until Sunday. Sponsor cards may be obtained from Crisis at Christmas, 5 Merchant Street, London, E.3.
An exhibition which has been held this week at Waterloo Station, London, was opened on Sunday by Andrew Cruickshank, the actor. It closes tomorrow. Carol singing will be organised in London during the Christmas season.
Between December 23 and 27 a disused Catholic church due for demolition in South London will he holding an Open Christmas, when any homeless person will be offered food and shelter.
There are eight agencies involved in Crisis at Christmas. One, St. Anne's Day Shelter, Leeds, is a Catholic organisation for helping the single homeless.