Born from our hopes, memories and childhood experiences, Christmas holds a different meaning to every person. Traditionally, for the majority, it means a chance to see family and friends, of warmth and good food, and a time of giving thanks – a celebration of another year passed. To others, however, it reveals a stark lack of these things; a day accompanied by a sense of sorrow and loss, a day channeling grief for lost contentment and wellbeing.
This year, more than ever, we all have an increased awareness of the fragility of our social lives, and of how quickly things can change. In the blink of an eye calendars can be ripped up, our hopes demolished, and our projections for the year discarded. Many things that help to make us who we are, our holidays, nights out, concerts or sports matches, suddenly altered or put on hold – events cancelled, patched together and then cancelled again by a great unknown whipping through our communities.
This though is an opportunity for us to gain insight into, to empathise with, the chronic uncertainty felt by those experiencing homelessness or who are vulnerably housed. It is a shock to see unpredictable, uncontrollable events snatch away stability, a jarring feeling of being out of control; at the whim of a sudden, uncaring crisis. We have all lost agency, and we have all had to reflect on what it is to be lonely and isolated. And yet, fortunately, the great majority of us have been able to also feel relief that we have the resources and support needed to fend off the worst of the covid pandemic.
In April, the ripple of fear that spread throughout the country also created a national outpouring of support and care. As the crisis unfolded, and faced with unprecedented uncertainty, people didn’t turn their backs and insulate themselves; rather, communities found ways to adapt – to show support through clapping and donating, and proving neighbourliness by sharing shopping. Across the country thousands of local WhatsApp groups were set up; social media and Zoom sprang to life.
Given the right resources, people show themselves again and again to be creative in the face of adversity, capable of coping, and of being forward looking. The capacity for humans to adjust to difficulty and to modify their environments in the face of catastrophe is unparallelled. St Martins was part of a national ‘Everyone In’ campaign to ensure there was shelter for any and every homeless person during the first wave of the pandemic. Although far from perfect, across the UK 14,500 people were given beds. In Norwich beds were provided for 104 people. We proved it was possible to pull together as a national community, and provide.
The hardship of this year has led to an increased determination to provide not just food and shelter, but community and connection as well. We know that there are direct links between loneliness and isolation and poor mental health. A feeling of disconnection plays a strong role in causing anxiety and depression, and can lead to increasing substance use. In this strangest year, we have all sensed what it is to be more vulnerable, of how easily our lives can be thrown into disarray by events outside our control. We have all lost connections, all felt loss. At St Martins we recognize this, and across our services we will continue to provide emotional support, as well as addressing physical needs, over the festive period.
There is a famous quote – ‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. This year, this winter, and this Christmas, we have a unique opportunity to relate to that vulnerability, and to realise we can all play a part in the answer.
By Iain Boag, Head of Residential Care