THE BLOG
08/12/2013 16:25 GMT | Updated 07/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Why This Christmas Will Be the Busiest Yet for Shelter's Helpline

I love the thought of spending the night before Christmas wrapping presents and eating mince pies, but last Christmas Eve I spent most of my day trying to help a mum with a disabled son facing a night on the streets in the cold.

I've been working at the Shelter helpline for the last nine years helping families every day who are homeless or on the verge of losing their homes. When I picked up the phone to that family last year, I found out that they had been evicted from their home that night and had nowhere else to go.

We managed to find them a place to stay, but I'll never forget the devastation in her voice. The sad fact is that eviction notices can come at any time of year, and this Christmas will be no different.

Despite nearly a decade at the other end of the phone, I have never seen the helpline as busy as it is now, and it's picking up every day. We're open seven days a week, 365 days a year, and from morning until night, the phones ring constantly - without fail.

Calls from families on the brink of losing their homes is the most heartbreaking thing I hear. It doesn't matter what time of year it is - the threat of homelessness is always devastating. But sadly it does seem to get worse around Christmas as the strains of the holidays close in and the weather gets colder. And the calls we get on Christmas Day itself can be some of the most upsetting. Who'd call us on 25 December unless they were desperate for help?

In fact, this Christmas we're expecting even more calls from people who need our help. Last year, we had more than 12,600 people call us in December - a record 15% jump from the year before. The number of people who called us over the whole year reached 174,177 - that's the equivalent to more than 470 people calling us every single day.

I'm incredibly proud to work for the helpline - which is part-funded by Marks & Spencer - alongside an amazing team of around 50 dedicated advisers. We help people every day with very complex issues and whilst it can be heartbreaking to hear their stories, we know we have to keep going. We also need to be able to see through the complex legal jargon that often surrounds housing issues: without our expertise many people would have no idea what their rights are.

When people call, it's sometimes the first time they've talked to anyone about their problems: I've taken calls from people on the day they're due to go to court to have their home repossessed. That means that one of the most important parts of our job is to be a reassuring voice at the other end of the phone for people who have nowhere else to turn.

But sadly, with cuts to the housing safety net combined with stagnating wages, soaring housing costs and the rising cost of living, homelessness is on the increase and for many families it would take just one thing - such as illness or job loss - to tip them into a downward spiral that could see them lose their home. As a result our capacity is constantly being stretched to the limit, and right now we're getting so many calls that we just can't help everyone we need to.

Earlier this month, we launched an emergency appeal for the 80,000 children in Britain who will wake up homeless this Christmas. Many of these children will be cramped into one room of a hostel or bed and breakfast with their entire family, far removed from the home comforts that so many of us look forward to over the Christmas season.

Our recent investigation into the conditions they face was shocking even for me, with half the families we spoke to reporting disturbing incidents witnessed by their children, including open drug use and direct threats of violence.

It breaks my heart that so many children will spend Christmas without a proper home, but it is rewarding to know that Shelter can help make a difference to these families. We just need to make sure we can offer support to everyone who needs it.

Things are getting tougher, but it keeps me going to see the support we're getting. There are lots of ways to help: it can be as simple as buying a Christmas sandwich from the Food on the Move range at Marks & Spencer, who'll make a donation to the helpline for each one sold. You can text HOME to 87080 to donate £3 and answer a call for help, or sign our petition to David Cameron to ask him to make sure that every child has the safe, permanent home they deserve.

We managed to find the family who called last Christmas Eve a place to stay. But we need to be here to answer even more of these desperate calls for help when people need us the most - and it seems they need us most now.