Family, fun and food are high on the priority list when it comes to the festive season but for some people none of these things can be taken for granted.
For those of us who can look forward to Christmas with those three very nice f-words, a charity is helping us to feel good about ourselves as we indulge – by inviting us to give just £1 to help the homeless come in from the cold.
Sixteen big-hearted restaurants across the North East are encouraging diners to donate to StreetSmart.
Cards on restaurant tables explain the scheme – which runs through November and December – and invite diners to contribute.
A waiter at one of the 16 participating restaurants could be forgiven for smiling when he sees customers keen to help.
The 28-year-old had only a park bench for a bed after fleeing danger in his north African homeland.
Marc – not his real name – now has a home, a job and a future to look forward to, thanks to the kindness of people he will never meet.
His tale of homelessness is harrowing.
He fled to the UK in 2007, leaving family and friends and without speaking a word of English. Able to attend school for only six years of his life, he had never had the chance to learn a foreign language.
Seven years on, his English is impeccable.
“When I came to the UK I had no money and no job,” he says.
“I slept on the streets of Newcastle... Leazes Park, Scotswood, anywhere.”
In 2009, the tantalising promise of a job and a friend to stay with lured him to London, but once there, he found himself on the streets again.
He says: “It was very hard for me.
“London is a big place and when you’re in a city you don’t know, it is even worse.
“You don’t know where to go or what to do. I felt completely hopeless.”
Marc returned to the North East in 2010, and although he was assaulted many times, it nevertheless felt safer here than on the streets of London,
Remarkably, he managed to stay positive. He still is. “I feel lucky to have had the experiences I have,” he says.
“You see things differently when you are homeless.
“I have met many different people from many different walks of life.
“I was surprised at how many I met who had had successful jobs and had found themselves homeless.
“Anybody can become homeless at any time.”
It is no surprise, then, that he is 100pc behind the StreetSmart project.
He says: “We need charities like StreetSmart. It is so important to help homeless people and this is the hardest time of year for them.
“I feel fantastic when I see those StreetSmart cards on tables in restaurants.”
The charity was established in 1998 and since then has raised £6.9m to help those with nowhere to call home. It moved to the North East in 2004.
Last year the November-December restaurant contributions brought in an impressive £610,000 throughout the country.
StreetSmart shared the money among charities that work with the hardest-hit.
More than 100 charities benefited, with half of the funds going to youth homelessness projects.
Last year more than £10,000 went to Newcastle’s People’s Kitchen, Tynehousing, CentrePoint and Aquila Way. These charities all aim to take people from vagrancy to becoming valued members of the community.
This year the Depaul Trust, which helps disadvantaged and homeless young people, has been added to the list.
Participating restaurants help by displaying StreetSmart cards on each of their tables and staff are briefed to explain to customers exactly how it works.
They are invited to make a £1 donation per table when they pay their bill. All the proceeds go to help the homeless in the area.
One of last year’s most successful fundraisers was Grapevine in Whitley Bay, which raised a whopping £1,009.
Restaurateur Peter Smith hopes for the same success this year.
He has managed Grapevine for two and a half years and has been in the restaurant business for more than 30.
He says: “There is a need to empathise with people, especially at this time of year.
“You have to think what you would want others to do if you were in that situation.
“I believe restaurants have a social obligation as local figures and getting involved with charity should be a natural thing to do.
“Restaurants are in an ideal position and I feel proud when I see pubs and restaurants getting into the community spirit.”
Stephen Burke, who runs The Cherry Tree in Jesmond, Newcastle, also hopes his customers will get involved in spreading the festive cheer.
He says: “It is easy for people to get on board, especially as the donation is such a small amount.
“Generosity speaks for itself and it is so rewarding to be able to enrich someone’s life at Christmas.”
It’s thanks to such generosity that Marc has been helped into a home in County Durham and a job in a Newcastle restaurant, and is now able to look forward without fear.
“I see myself as a different person now,” he says.
“When I think of my time being homeless I feel like I am looking back at someone else.”
He has been unable to stay in contact with his family, describing his relationship with them as “complicated”.
They know he is in England, but little more than that.
“I don’t know what’s happened to them now,” he says.
And while that is a regret, he continues to stay as upbeat as he can.
“I try to stay positive, but when you are in that situation it’s hard,” he says.
“I self-harmed to cope but thank God I didn’t go down the drugs route. At least half of the people I came across were addicted to that kind of life.
“I feel lucky because I avoided that.”
Marc says that when you are homeless, there is only one thing you think about.
“You have to think of somewhere to sleep and that’s it.
“The only thing you care about is shelter. You just don’t know what will happen next.
“I was not always on edge or nervous. If I knew where I was going to sleep that night I felt a sense of relief.
“But when you are homeless, no-one will ask if you’re OK. You feel you are not wanted. You’re just ignored.
“You are not there. You are nothing.
“You are homeless and you don’t expect to be seen as anything more than that.”
StreetSmart is always looking for more restaurants and cafes to get involved with its fundraising.
For further information go to www.streetsmart.org.uk or contact StreetSmart’s North East representative on 0794 379 0032
PARTICIPATING STREETSMART RESTAURANTS
Audela, Bridge Street, Berwick-upon-Tweed:
Bistro 21, Aykley Heads, Durham City;
Blackfriars, Friar Street, Newcastle;
Bonbar, Assembly Rooms, Newcastle;
Bouchon, Gilesgate, Hexham;
Cafe Bar One, Jesmond Road, Newcastle;
Cafe 21, Pandon Bank, Quayside, Newcastle;
Eslington Villa Hotel, Station Road, Gateshead;
Grapevine, Park View, Whitley Bay;
Paradiso, Market Lane, Newcastle;
Sky Apple Cafe, Heaton Road, Heaton, Newcastle;
The Cherry Tree, Osborne Road, Jesmond, Newcastle;
The Kitchen at Marks & Spencer, Northumberland Street, Newcastle;
The Little Hippo, Acorn Road, Jesmond, Newcastle;
The Rib Room, Ramside Hall Hotel, Carrville, County Durham;
The Silk Room, Pandon Bank, Quayside, Newcastle