David Hoffman & Crisis At Christmas
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
You may like to take a look at these other pictures by David Hoffman