02 Feb 2013

"Good morning! Or, if this is your first night shift, good afternoon. This is shift seven of eight, at Rough Sleepers 1, for Crisis 2012."

The detail seems redundant, but perhaps it's easy to get disoriented, with ten-hour shifts that end just as the eight meagre hours of daylight begin.

We get going, teams of two changing role roughly every hour. My first duty is guarding the main gate and patrolling nearby, a reassuring presence to nearby residents. It's brisk, and there's almost no one out. The only excitement comes from a radio call that there's an ambulance coming, and that someone should walk up to the main road to direct it.

I go. The quick-response vehicle has no trouble finding the road, but the ambulance nearly turns right, away from the center, before spotting my waving arms. The five minutes saved: concrete evidence of making a difference. Satisfying, in a small way, in a role that otherwise is beneficial only in aggregate.

The indoor shifts are warmer but less exciting, mostly consisting of holding muted conversations with shiftmates while watching doorways. I'm drinking cup after cup of tea from styrofoam cups, to try to stay lucid. The caffeine leaves the tiredness, but takes away the sleep.

After three or four hours a man charges out of the sleeping area on my left, vomiting as he goes. He disappears into the disabled toilet, from which we hear terrible noises, before eventually being helped away by a Green Badge.

I get a bucket and a mop. It's carpet, so I can't do much, but whatever's in that vomit, we want it dead. They tell us in every briefing what a norovirus outbreak does in a building full of people with compromised immune systems.

The patches outside aren't so bad, but it's murder in the cubicle. The shift leader's going out of her way to be supportive, but I just get on with it, picking up the chunks with thick plastic gloves. It's not that I signed up for grim duty and am determined to carry it out for the cause, so much as that I just don't care. It's four am and I'm only half here.

Later I'm on fire watch: literally, sitting in a darkened room watching sleeping people to make sure that they don't catch fire. Very little vigilance is required - nobody is moving and fire is easy to see in the dark - and I'm too tired to converse with the other warden, so I spend most of the time watching early-morning flights land at London City airport as the sky slowly lightens.

My last shift is luggage duty. Some guests are up and about now, and our role is to fetch their bags from numbered crates assigned through some incomprehensible card system. The guests are extremely patient with us as we try to get up to speed. I guess they're used to this; there'll be new people at the desk again in another hour.

Soon there's a knock and I unlock the side door for our relief detail. She's all business, thin leather gloves sticking out of the back pocket of her fitted chinos, alert, ready for anything. Geoff and I struggle to respond intelligently to her questions; she cuts us off with "don't worry, we'll handle it". I can't tell if she's moving abnormally quickly.

We lumber back up the stairs to the debriefing room, passing a line of excited, smiling people trotting the other way.

The morning shift are here.