It is easy to have preconceptions about what a homeless person is like.

The stereotype is a drunk or drug addict, resigned to life on the streets, and probably someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. And until I volunteered for Crisis at Christmas, I believed these things to be true.

But it soon hit me that the harsh reality is, anyone can end up homeless. A string of bad luck can quickly spiral to leave a person without a roof over their head and cut off from friends and family.

Crisis looks out for those who slip through the net at other homeless charities. If you are single and homeless, they will offer support. As I learned more about the charity, what surprised me more than anything was that their shelters, which open temporarily over the festive period, are more than just a soup kitchen.

Those who are homeless can get a hot meal or a snack. But they can also have a shower, get a haircut or a manicure, have lessons in basic English, maths and IT, or be given advice from qualified professionals, including about how to claim benefits. They can also have dental and optical check-ups, or simply just play games or chat with volunteers. Sometimes all they want is company.

And those who visit are simply 'guests' - not 'users' or 'clients'. It may just be a word, but it shapes the attitude volunteers have towards those they meet.

When I first arrived at the North London centre, which is based in a college, I was immediately put to work behind the scenes, sorting out Christmas decorations to make the place look festive, and organising the stock room, so that volunteers on the ‘front line’ could immediately find what they needed, whether it was towels, cleaning products or clothing.

It was nice to be able to start off slowly, but I was pretty eager to get into the thick of it and directly help those who needed it.

Luckily, volunteers are moved around between tasks, so they get as much out of it as possible, and do not end up doing an exceptionally easy or difficult task for too long.

After an hour or so, I was relieved of my duties, and instead I went into the hairdressing salon, where I was asked to help clean and wash the hair of those who came in.

Now, I don’t like hair. Especially not anyone else’s so I have to say the thought of washing someone’s hair filled me with dread. But there really is no time to be precious about anything you are asked to do.

Soon enough, a man with almost shoulder-length grey hair sat in the chair in front of where I was, and I just had to get on with it. I rinsed it first, barely touching it except with the water, shampood it thoroughly and rinsed it. And his eyes filled up with tears.

I thought I had hurt him, and was frantically apologising, when he explained that no one had gone anywhere near him in so long, let alone touched him, He was overcome with gratitude.

So, with his permission, I washed it a second time. It was such a simple gift to be able to give to someone, how could I not do it again?

While it was clearly emotional for him, it was also a bit of a moment for me. I’d gone into the centre with certain expectations and fears about what I would be asked to do. But when it comes down to it, basic humanity kicks in, and you can’t help but want to support these people in any way possible.

Once my shift in the salon was over, I was asked to help serve food. It was a busy lunchtime, with lots of people coming and going.

Some wanted to chat, others didn’t; either way was ok with me. But one guest will forever stay ingrained on my memory. It was his first time at Crisis, and you could tell. He was keen to chat, and the first thing he said to me was ‘I expect you’re wondering how I ended up homeless.’

 

Of course I was, but you don’t ask. You’re not supposed to ask. If guests want to volunteer that information then great, but it was really none of my business.

It was his story that resonated, and which single-handedly changed my whole attitude towards the work I was doing and towards homeless people.

He used to work in the City, but lost his job when the financial crisis hit. Losing his income meant he could no longer pay his rent, nor could he support his partner anymore.

Soon his relationship broke up, and he was kicked out of his flat after becoming too far behind on the rent.

For a while, he was sleeping in stations and on buses and trains, but after several months, he managed to get himself into some temporary accommodation and started to receive benefits.

As a man in his early 40s, he finally felt like his life was getting back together - things were going his way again at last.

He told me that after losing his home, he used to carry the small amount of possessions he had in a rucksack, which he had with him all the time, to keep them safe.

But one day he fell asleep on a bus. When he woke up, his bag, with his possessions and what money he had, was gone. And he was back to square one, which is when I met him.

Unlike so many people on the streets, he asked for help, he found the Crisis at Christmas centre, and although I don’t know what happened to him after that, for the best possible reasons, I hope I never see him again.

And from a personal point of view, allong with the other guests I met, he changed my whole outlook on life.

Some tasks were dull, like cleaning the toilets, standing at the front door greeting guests as they arrived, and sorting the stock room.

But the experience I got from talking to guests and other volunteers - many of them helping because they wanted to give something back to the charity that helped them when they were homeless - was incredible.

And while it’s heartbreaking that anyone has to live on the streets, especially at this time of year, the support offered by Crisis is huge, and I intend to offer them my help every Christmas.

To volunteer, or for more information on the support offered by Crisis, visit www.crisis.org.uk