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David Hoffman & Crisis At Christmas

December 22, 2015
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

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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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. December 22, 2015

    ‘No room at the inn’ still seems to be the reality for so many people in this world. Valerie

  2. December 22, 2015

    Superb photographs by David Hoffman – I remember his work for City Limits magazine back in the 1980′s.

  3. Neville Turner permalink
    December 22, 2015

    Photography at it’s best each shot needs no explanation a reflection of homelessness that
    Is still increasing in the UK one of the very wealthy nations on the planet earth.Keep up the good work David Hoffman.

  4. Alan Christon permalink
    December 22, 2015

    Thank you Gentle and David
    Spitalfields such a special,special place
    Thank you

  5. December 23, 2015

    A thought-provoking report – very good photographs!

    *** FROHE WEIHNACHTEN! ***
    *** MERRY CHRISTMAS! ***
    *** JOYEUX NOËL! ***

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

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