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David Hoffman At Crisis At Christmas

December 22, 2013
by the gentle author

Almost by chance, at the end of the seventies, photographer David Hoffman found himself recording the formation of an organisation called Crisis at Christmas that opened up disused spaces and created temporary shelters staffed by volunteers to provide accommodation for the homeless through the holiday season when other shelters were shut.

As a participant rather than a visitor, David was able to take intimate photographs of those who sought refuge, capturing emotional images which are compassionate yet void of sentimentality.

There is a timeless quality to many of these pictures that could equally be of refugees from a war zone or in some apocalyptic dystopian vision of the future, yet this is London in the recent past and Crisis at Christmas is still with us and the work goes on.

“At the time, I was known for my photos of the homeless at St Botolph’s in Aldgate and I was going out with a girl named Peta Watts, who was working at Crisis at Christmas – so when she asked me to take pictures there, I leapt at the chance of becoming the Crisis photographer, and I did it for three years.

This was the early days of these shelters and they used derelict churches. One of them was St Philip & St Augustine in Whitechapel, round the corner from the squat where I lived in Fieldgate Mansions, and the next year it was at the Tradescant church of St Mary’s in Lambeth. So there were very little facilities – perhaps only a cold tap and one toilet for hundreds of people –  and the whole thing was a chaotic feat of organisation, but somehow it all worked. They got donations of food and clothing and toys. And I remember some of the guys found an old bath tub in a skip and brought it in and filled it with water, so they could wash themselves. There was no regard to Health & Safety or regulation as we know it, but it all worked brilliantly and everyone was very well looked after. There was no hierarchy and the homeless people would be involved in the cooking and arranging the mattresses, and keeping the whole thing running.

I photographed it because it was a wonderful event and – like at St Botolph’s – some of the people were couples, and I took their pictures and brought them prints the next day. Many of these people had been living on the streets all year and the photographs helped them to have a more positive self-image.

Some would be shooting up and and others would be drinking, and an ambulance would come two or three times a day to pick people up. There were fights too, and I remember there was an unspoken rule that only one volunteer would approach to break it up by speaking softly – and it never failed. Many of the volunteers were middle class people who would work eighteen to twenty hours a day. What I liked about it was people coming together and doing things for themselves – and it just worked, and the homeless people looked after each other.”

Photographs copyright © David Hoffman

Click here to donate to Crisis At Christmas


You may like to take a look at these other pictures by David Hoffman

David Hoffman at St Botolph’s

David Hoffman at Fieldgate Mansions

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Moyra P. permalink
    December 22, 2013

    Emotional viewing. Taken me nearly two hours to write this as I knew many of the faces at Crisis and St Mary’s. David’s massively important archive is a historical gem… one of the multifarious ‘histories’ that are normally hidden from us.

  2. December 22, 2013

    Fantastic pictures. So many stories, awful and heartwarming both. I love the Monopoly player :)

  3. armier permalink
    December 22, 2013

    Merci merci merci

  4. December 22, 2013

    Truly shocking, thanks for reminding us of these often forgotten people. I have no doubt the same or very similar situations exist today.

    Some memorable photography.

  5. December 22, 2013

    Some very moving photographs… Thank you for THEM at this time!

    *** A Merry Christmas to The Gentle Author & and all Visitors of the SPITALFIELDS-LIFE-Website! All the best to you in 2014! ***

    Love and Peace ACHIM

  6. Chris F permalink
    December 22, 2013

    Photo 13… The bloke in the black coat comforting the well dressed bloke in the light coloured rain coat… There’s a story there waiting to be told… Was he a volunteer overwhelmed by the situation or had he been newly rendered homeless… Why are we still, nearly 30 years later, dealing with this business when our country is awash with so much money that we can still give 27 million pounds in aid to China and a number of other countries that patently don’t need assistance? Someone out there must have all the answers………

  7. Gary Arber permalink
    December 22, 2013

    Another fantastic example of Davids photography. David is still actively recording the troubles of the underprivileged from the actions of the powerfull. He has been assaulted, wrongly arrested, had his teeth knocked out and been harassed by the authorites. When the policeman whacked the legs of a woman a a recent demonstration David was there recording it. He soldiers on, he is not a wealthy man but is content with his lot and the Hoffman Photo Library will remain as a vital record of the times for many years to come.

  8. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    December 22, 2013

    The fact that Crisis at Christmas still exists in the 21st century is a terrible inictment of our sodiety.As Chris F says why on earth are we doling out aid money to India,China & corrupt African states when there. Is still real want in our country.Politicians!!

  9. December 22, 2013

    May God forgive us that Crisis is STILL needed in our country. Thank you for these challenging pictures

  10. John Campbell permalink
    December 22, 2013

    Powerful, frightening and deeply moving images.

  11. John Campbell permalink
    December 22, 2013

    Following the collapse of my parents marriage in the 1970′s, my own father entered a downward spiral which eventually found him down and out and homeless on the streets of London. As a small boy I never really understood the reasons behind his departure and spent most of my young life hopefully anticipating his return and life becoming ‘normal’ once more. This feeling intensified particularily around christmas time as I mixed the wonder of ”Father Christmas’ and the anticipation of the impending magic with the hope that my dad would come home. I had a theory that he must be aware of the intensity with which I thought of him and missed him and that he would not leave his boy alone at this special time of year. On Christmas eve, as darkness fell, I would look out on the dark, empty streets and imagine seeing my dad walking down the path and all would be wonderful again in the world.
    Having spent some time initially viewing these photographs with a mixture of shock, horror and sadness I found myself scanning the faces of the forlorn men in hope that I might indeed find my own father among them. Quite strange really, I am sitting here 40 years on with my own family in the buzz and warmth of pre-christmas activity and yet deep inside my heart is still looking down the path for the dad who never did come home.

  12. denise merrill permalink
    December 22, 2013

    Photograph 13 heartbreaking.

  13. David Warwick permalink
    December 22, 2013

    I’ve never seen David’s work previously and these photos are fascinating. I’ve worked at Crisis at Christmas for a number of years in the past from my first experience on the Caledonian Road in the mid 90s which was a real baptism of fire as it was the drinkers’ shelter and then at various locations around the Capital. It never ceased to amaze me how appreciative the ‘guests’ were of what the volunteers did for them. The true spirit of Christmas.

  14. tony bock permalink
    December 22, 2013

    David did some important work in those days, this is some of his best.

  15. Vicky permalink
    December 23, 2013

    Wonderful photographs, incredibly moving, thank you David and Gentle Author. The comments are as heartrending as the photos! Shocking that this situation still exists today.

  16. aubrey permalink
    December 23, 2013

    Oh Lor’ … There, but for the grace of God … The sleeping arrangements was/is just miserable, horrendous. The photos are so hard to view.

  17. Lisa permalink
    December 23, 2013

    Danke, Danke!

  18. Cherub permalink
    December 24, 2013

    Crisis do such a great job. Nobody should be on their own at Christmas. We had a local trust here that did this every year, then the woman who ran it retired and it closed. I don’t know what will happen to all the people this year, so I gave money to the Salvation Army as I know they care.

  19. Jemma permalink
    December 11, 2015

    John Campbell, your comment broke my heart and made me shed a tear, or two, maybe a few more… I’ve no idea if you’ll ever read this but I send you much love. I’m so happy you have a loving family buzzing about you now. I understand and can relate to the heartache of being a kid without a dad, particularly at Christmas. I work for Crisis and will think of him as I go about my business this xmas. xx

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