Finding the Spirit of Christmas

How working with people affected by homelessness in Guildford and cooking a meal for 40 people helps Oliver understand the true meaning of Christmas.

“It’s often the people who have least to celebrate who make the greatest effort.”

This Christmas, 2019, will be the third year in which Oliver Topple has chosen to spend Christmas at work.

Oliver is a support worker at Vaughan House, Riverside’s supported housing service for people affected by homelessness, in Guildford, Surrey.  Vaughan House provides accommodation for single adults who’ve either been homeless or are in danger of becoming homeless.

Oliver and the team at Vaughan House support customers to develop the skills they need to move out of homelessness, and to go on to live independently and thrive in their community. Oliver is part of a Riverside team working closely with residents to support them to achieve their goals: be it employment, housing, education or training.

Oliver has worked in similar support roles with children and adults for more than 10 years, but started his working life in the creative sector.  Oliver has a degree in photography and has worked extensively in fashion and the arts. He was inspired to make the move into the homelessness sector by a friend’s photography project which explored the lives of a group of young people with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“It was a significant career change but one I’ve never regretted. I’d tell anybody considering a career in homelessness to go for it, particularly if they can bring different experiences, skills and perspectives into the sector.”

Why does Oliver continue to take more than his fair share of Christmas shifts?  Because, he says, in his experience, December 25th is one of the happiest, and most fulfilling, days of the year for him as well as many of the residents.

“I’m not religious so I don’t attribute anything that I see or feel to anything other than the people involved. But, wherever I’ve worked, Christmas feels different. There is genuinely something good that happens at Christmas.  I’ve known people normally hesitant to engage with other residents come into the communal areas for dinner and contribute to creating what I can only call Christmas spirit.”

Along with two other colleagues, Oliver’s Christmas Day starts at 8am.  It’s still a working day, so he’ll often have to deal with a range of tasks.

For the past couple of years, Oliver has been acting Head Chef and, assisted by colleagues and residents, responsible for preparing a full Christmas dinner for more than 40 residents and staff.

Oliver points out that Christmas Day can be a highly charged, emotional experience for any group of people.

“For most people, Christmas can be a time to let go of the worries, stresses and strains that fill our lives, to feel happy in the moment,” says Oliver.

“That’s not so easy for people who’ve experienced the physical and mental trauma of homelessness.

“How does a person feel when they have no home? Helpless. Hopeless. Vulnerable. Powerless. Empty.

“People affected by the trauma homelessness can find it trust people again and find it hard articulate emotions.

“Christmas is an important part of people’s rehabilitation as it helps them know that it’s OK to laugh and feel happy again. It helps them to enjoy and trust their feelings again, even if it’s just for a day.

“In my experience, it’s often the people who have least to celebrate who make the greatest effort.  They may find being with other people a struggle but they’ll do their best to join in, to help other residents, with whom they may hardly have spoken, and have a good time.

“People who have been through homelessness can sometimes be the most appreciative of even the smallest things.  Not just the food and other festive goodies but the relative peace and quiet we enjoy on Christmas Day. For me, that epitomises the true meaning of Christmas.”