“Merry Christmas” said the man in the tired-looking blue coat after tapping me on the shoulder and extending his hand without breaking eye contact. As I shook his hand and wished him a Merry Christmas back I felt quite moved, as one only can be when greeted by a stranger with genuine warmth. He told me his name was Phillip. I didn’t know where Phillip would be on Christmas Day, if he had any family or even a place to stay but I knew I would be thinking about him. Perhaps this brief but memorable encounter was emblematic of the spirit and warmth shown by the Digbeth community last Sunday.
You’d have to be living under a rock to have not noticed the visible increase in homelessness across Birmingham in recent years and you’d have to have a heart of stone to not feel something when you walk past these people as the weather gets piercingly colder. While the government continues plumbing egregious depths of ignorance to this issue, a few big-hearted local people and businesses voluntarily took it upon themselves to provide a bit of Christmas cheer to people who have little to look forward to at this time of year.
On Sunday 23rd of December four Digbeth businesses came together to spend an afternoon feeding the homeless, elderly and lonely of Birmingham with a full Christmas dinner and hot drinks while also handing out care packages of coats, sleeping bags and other items. This was second year that the event has run and it took place at the Old Library in the Custard Factory this time, having happened at The Old Crown last year. The space at the Old Library was given by Zellig with food provided by Kanteen and The Old Crown while the organisation and promotion were handled by local marketing agency Bread Birmingham.
I wondered how the word was spread to people who don’t have same level of connectivity and internet access as the more fortunate of us so I asked Alex Powell of Bread Birmingham, one of the chief organisers, how they did it. He explained to me that they went out putting up flyers and ringing around shelters to gain interest and it certainly seemed to have worked. Over 100 dinners were laid on with everybody taking away items that might keep them a little warmer this Christmas. Any of the blankets and clothes that didn’t get taken would be driven around and given to people or deposited at shelters.
The Old Library was built in 1866 and was originally known as the Southern District Library but is now a large events space having been refurbished in 2003. It’s a bright, white open space and the atmosphere inside was jolly with festive music ringing out over the speakers, a large Christmas tree in the corner and the smell of hot food in the air.
Eight large round tables provided ample room for people to sit at, enjoy their food and converse. The chance to have a chat in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere with a roof over our heads is something most of us take for granted but for many here it was to be treasured and cherished. There are many different rungs at the ugly end of the socio-economic ladder and while some of the people here maybe did have a home to go to, their Christmas will be just as quiet and sombre as those on the street. Some people’s loneliness is never more acutely felt than at this time of year and it was tremendous to see the smiles on their faces, no matter how fleeting the moment might be.
The event was a big success and will probably return again next Christmas. Alex told me they might try and do one in the summer as well, which still provides its challenges for the homeless despite the warmer weather. For now though we can look back at an event that Birmingham can be proud of, a great example of a local community coming together for a common good. Michelle Irving of Zellig perhaps put it best when she said “even if it makes five people happier this Christmas it’ll have been worth it.”
As I said my goodbyes and ventured to leave I noticed the huge pile of sprouts left over and smiled. No matter what our background, some things never change.