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David Hoffman & Crisis At Christmas

December 29, 2020
by the gentle author

Next year – with your help – I plan to publish a book of David Hoffman’s photography of East London, including these breathtaking photographs of the origin of ‘Crisis at Christmas.’ David came to live in Whitechapel in the seventies and documented the world around him with candour and compassion: homelessness, racism, the rise of protest, and the incursion of the City – subjects that remain pertinent to this day.

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 humane 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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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    December 29, 2020

    I find it shocking that there was already so much homelessness in the 1970s. Having said that, I remember being in the US in the early 1980s, and there were already a lot of homeless people on the streets there, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Sadly.

  2. December 29, 2020

    A Man with his Dog, a Man crying, a loving Couple, Men playing MONOPOLY, People who help each other — the real, true meaning of Christmas!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  3. December 29, 2020

    Great stuff, a wonderful set David, not seen all of these before. Homer.

  4. Philip Marriage permalink
    December 29, 2020

    These images are so powerful – so moving.

  5. December 29, 2020

    Beautiful poignant pictures, very moving, terribly sad and yet, at the same time, warm. Thank you, G.A.

  6. Anne permalink
    December 29, 2020

    Looking forward to the book !

  7. Mark permalink
    December 29, 2020

    Some desperately sad and moving pictures, the one with seemingly hundreds of homeless people sleeping on a wooden floor takes the breath away. We haven’t really moved on, as a spieces have we?
    I thank you for your daily story / pictures, always something of interest.
    Hope your recovery from this dreadful virus is complete.
    Lets hope for some kind of normality in 2021, should be visiting London to see The Damned in the summer. Fingers crossed!
    Have a happy new year, with thanks.

  8. Linda Granfield permalink
    December 29, 2020

    I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to select just a few for your book–so many of these photos are so gripping. I wept–and I then chuckled–over so many.

    Imagine having nothing and cheerfully playing Monopoly, buying property with ‘play’ money!
    Such vulnerability and strength, pathos and sweet moments. Dignity in bathing and shaving outdoors–such a moment.

    I salute the volunteers in these photos–they, like those now stepping forth during the pandemic, are most worthy of our gratitude and care.

  9. paul loften permalink
    December 29, 2020

    Some very familiar faces when I used to get off at Aldgate East Station. The little park opposite the Whitechapel Gallery was where some spent their time during the day. Thanks to David for Crisis at Christmas and both of you for the photos .

  10. Saba permalink
    December 29, 2020

    Heart-warming and all, but also terrifying. Some are caught in traps with no keys. It could be me, it could be you.

  11. December 29, 2020

    Capturing, brilliant and moving photos of very hard times here in East London. Thank you David Hoffman.

  12. M D West permalink
    December 29, 2020

    The image of the guy making a framed picture of his eyes with just his hands is very special, a sort of mime photography

  13. John Venes permalink
    December 29, 2020

    Very moving.How comfortable most of us are in comparison.

  14. December 29, 2020

    Great photos from the man who always takes great photos. Can’t wait for the book!

  15. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 30, 2020

    Yes – these poignant photos certainly puts our present troubles into perspective…

    The picture that spoke most to me was the one of the man having his feet dealt with. I can imagine that living on the streets with no access to clean dry footwear would play havoc with one’s feet, and it takes a very special kind of care for someone to deal with the subsequent problems.

    I’m glad that Crisis is still going strong and giving that care, but it doesn’t reflect well on our society that it is still needed.

  16. Sarah Ainslie permalink
    December 30, 2020

    Thank you David for your vision, for your open and non judgemental way of seeing everyone with warmth. And so much detail in each image that gives such a rich life.
    We need this book to remind us of how little has changed.

  17. David Green permalink
    January 1, 2021

    Superb photos all, but the one that moves me the most is the shot of the the bloke with his arm around the bloke in the mac, who is clearly very upset. My mind instantly goes to ‘Why was he in a shelter? What happened to him to put him there? Who was he? A soldier or merchant seaman still haunted by the War? A victim of some religious institution or orphanage? A wife or child taken to soon?’ There but for the grace of God, go all of us.

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