Monday 5 December 2011, 17:00
As I emerge from the Tube at Embankment, I step over a pile of crushed cardboard boxes, surrounded by a scatter of tins. Somebody's bed last night. It's after 9am but the cold still strikes through my fleece and I'm glad to get indoors at the building opposite St Martin-in-the-Fields which houses the Connection - the centre for homeless people - and the Christmas Appeal office.
Inside, there's a lively buzz. The phones have been going since 7.30 and the first shift is leaving, including a BBC foreign correspondent and an editor from Current Affairs. I sign in, do the data security briefing, find myself wearing a headset and immediately the phone rings.
The first caller gives £100. He gives every year to the Radio 4 Appeal: "I'm not sending cards or giving presents this Christmas but I want to do something to make the world a better place."
A woman gives £200: "It's my winter fuel allowance. To be honest I don't need it anywhere as much as the people you help, so I'm sending it to St Martin's."
Another woman phones to say how important she thinks the appeal is, and although she can't donate immediately (because her utility bills are due) she will send a cheque after Christmas. Both these callers mention, when asked if we can gift aid their donations, that they don't earn enough to pay tax.
There are only seconds between calls. One comes from a woman who herself became homeless aged 50.
A tray of tea appears. Around me, there is a constant trill of phones and murmur of voices: "How much would you like to donate? Would you like a newsletter? What is the long number? And the expiry date? Thank you very much and a happy Christmas to you."
The volunteers include St Martin's parishioners, BBC colleagues, staff from a City accountancy firm. A mother and daughter have travelled 2 hours from Dover to help. Everyone feels privileged to be part of it, welcoming this flow of human kindness.
On the office wall there's a coloured map of the UK, showing the distribution of funds from last year's appeal, from Cornwall to Cape Wrath. There are only 2 or 3 counties in which grants have not been made, helping vulnerable people at moments of critical need.
Many donations are of £10 or £20, the givers always saying a variation of: "It's not much, I know, but I want to do something to make a difference." Often they say they have heard Libby Purves' Received With Thanks. One man says it "melted my heart of stone".
A retired nurse calls. She has already given £10 but when she heard Libby's programme she decided to phone and give another £10. She says she is on benefits herself but she knows from work with homeless people that there is nothing better than helping someone get back on their feet, and you never know someone's story until you really listen.
A man calls from Sweden to donate and tells the story of his youngest brother, who fell on hard times living in London, lost his job and home and became alcoholic.
"An intelligent guy, nice background and family - but it can happen to anyone." The Connection at St Martins helped him and he got into a hostel and, eventually, a flat. But he didn't recover from the alcoholism and died at 45. "I really believe in this appeal, " says the caller.
When told how big the response is, despite difficult economic times, he remarks that "it says something very special about the British public". And so it does.
Denis Nowlan is the Network Manager Radio 4
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