Homelessness is a significant issue in today’s world. It is an issue that can affect anyone at any time. Unfortunately, prejudice abounds, and many people cannot imagine a world in which they themselves find themselves without a home. Choosing to become a homeless shelter volunteer is a compassionate extension of your support to people who really need it.
There is a range of common misconceptions, and many still believe that homelessness is something that happens to individuals who have made mistakes, and who could have avoided homelessness had they made better choices.
Some imagine that all homeless people have substance abuse issues that have led them down the wrong path. But homelessness covers a broad spectrum of society.
A huge range of different people, in very different situations, are in this position. And even those who are addicted may have mental health issues, or other issues, that have led them to their current problems. Homelessness impacts families and children too. Without knowing these people and what they have been through, we definitely cannot judge.
Too many of us can be judgemental when we should be kind. Kindness is an underrated characteristic – but in our current world with all its many problems, it is ever more important. Cultivating kindness and thinking not of our own needs, but of how we can support others, is one vital way to make our world a better place.
Becoming a homeless shelter volunteer is just one of the ways we could potentially cultivate kindness and make a real difference in our communities.
The Issue of Homelessness
People find themselves homeless for a wide range of different reasons. They might, for example:
- Have financial issues that mean that they cannot afford to keep up rent or mortgage payments.
- Need to leave a home situation due to some form of abuse or violence.
- Have degraded relationships with previous housemates or family that means they can no longer live in a previous home.
- Be suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues that being homeless make even harder to tackle.
- Have just left care, the army or prison, and find it challenging to find out which way to turn.
Homelessness is a complex issue, and there is a considerable range of intricacies in someone’s situation that might not be obvious to the casual observer.
Counting the Cost
Finding accurate statistics on the number of homeless people in a given country can be challenging. Different nations measure and define homelessness differently. However, there are certain authorities which try to measure estimates, such as the Homelessness Monitor in the UK.
Homelessness does not just include those who are sleeping rough or sleeping on the streets. It can also include families and individuals living in temporary accommodation, homeless households seeking housing assistance from local authorities, and ‘hidden homeless’ households – those who are living in precarious or unsuitable, crowded living conditions.
The HUD’s Annual Point-in-Time Count revealed 17 out of every 10,000 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2019. These people are associated with different regions, family status, gender, and racial/ethnic groups.
Unsheltered homelessness is arguably the most significant issue. This causes a range of vulnerabilities, including, of course, threats to the health and well-being of individuals. A number of risk factors are raised amongst those who find themselves on the streets.
How Homeless Shelters Address This Issue
Homeless shelters seek to aid these most vulnerable homeless people by keeping them off the streets and giving them temporary shelter. By giving homeless individuals an alternative to sleeping on the streets, these organizations help to mitigate risks and help people get back on their feet. Homeless shelters are not a long-term solution for homelessness. But they can be a valuable tool to support people in finding their way to more permanent housing options.
Homelessness shelters can only ever be a stop-gap solution. In order to truly tackle the issue of homelessness globally, we need to work to tackle broader societal issues.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals such as no poverty, and zero hunger, good health, education, decent work and economic growth, reduced inequalities and sustainable cities and communities all tie into this issue. Working towards these sustainable development goals, therefore, will be crucial in tackling the issue on a broader scale.
On a more local scale, providing more permanent support structures and permanent housing will be crucial to tackling the issue.
But until we tackle issues on national and global levels, homeless shelters are crucial. And we can all help play a role in driving things towards a better, fairer world by volunteering time and/or money and resources to help.
Why Homeless Shelters Need Volunteers
These shelters are often stretched for resources, time and money. They need volunteer homeless shelter workers to keep things running. In many nations, a lack of public funding means that these homeless shelters rely entirely on charity and the kindness of volunteers to continue their work. This is where you can come in.
When you volunteer at the homeless shelter, you can help keep people off the streets. Volunteers can help provide emergency shelter for night stays and keep people who need beds warm and dry and safe.
How to Become a Homeless Shelter Volunteer
How exactly you will be able to become a homeless shelter volunteer will depend on where you live, and the volunteer opportunities that are to be found there.
The first thing to do is to seek out homeless shelters or other organisations working with homeless individuals where you live and who might need volunteeers. Look out for homeless shelters run by local charities.
Local churches often also have schemes to support homeless people. If you can, visit them directly, or check out online sites for these organisations if they have them. Each organisation will have a different process for becoming a volunteer.
It is also a good idea to look out for national bodies that support homeless people. They will often be able to point you in the direction of local shelters that might need your help. For example, look at the following organisations in the United States:
- National Coalition for the Homeless – National Directory
- The HUD website – contact the local regional office of HUD in your state.
- The Red Cross – type in your zip code to find the local office site closest to you.
You should also check out Volunteer Match – a nonprofit that can link you up with homeless shelter volunteer opportunities in your community.
In the UK, check out the registered charity Shelter which recruits volunteers to help with their efforts to end homelessness. Crisis is another organisation through whom you may be able to arrange to volunteer your time to support a homeless shelter near you.
There are also plenty of other national authorities, NGOs and charities operating homeless shelters around the world. So it is likely that wherever you live, you will be able to find somewhere to volunteer near you.
Indirect Means to Help
Even if homeless shelters themselves are not currently in need of volunteers, you can also often find other ways to donate your time to the cause. For example, you might work in a shop selling goods for a homelessness charity. You may also be able to volunteer to prepare or hand out meals to homeless individuals through food banks or other schemes. Volunteers can also find other ways to support, such as donating old goods, or money to the cause.
Many homeless shelters struggle to get by financially, and as such raising money for your local homeless shelter can provide a real lifeline so that the organization can continue to deliver its services. From film screenings to bake sales, many creative ways exist to help raise a little money for those with the will to help out.
Volunteering on Holidays
One important thing to remember about volunteering at a homeless shelter is that this is something you can do at any time of the year. Many volunteers suddenly want to do their part at Christmas, Thanksgiving or around the holidays. But if you really want to cultivate kindness and do your bit to help, it could be even better to volunteer more at other times of the year, when there are fewer other volunteers available.
Of course, we all like to think of others, especially around the holidays. And it is particularly hard to imagine people being without somewhere to go around these special times of the year. But so many people volunteer only around the holidays that you may find fewer opportunities are available, while charities and homeless shelters are crying out for help when those holiday hoards disappear. To make the biggest difference, donate your time when other people don’t.
The Benefits of Being a Homeless Shelter Volunteer
The benefits of being a homeless shelter volunteer go beyond helping the homeless individuals themselves. Helping others in this way can also bring a range of benefits for you, as an individual.
Volunteering at a homeless shelter can give you a great sense of pride and self-worth. It can really boost your personal confidence and make you feel wonderful knowing that you are doing something that really makes a difference in the lives of others. Some also provide basic training in some of the services that they offer. Being kind really can be its own reward. But you can also get a lot more from the experience.
One of our community members shared her volunteering experiences with us. Several years ago, she volunteered at a homeless shelter, undertaking art and creating writing workshops with the residents. One of the things that really stuck out to her about the experience was the amazing range of people she met.
Simply talking with people and learning about their lives and experiences was a truly fascinating and eye-opening experience. Volunteering at a homeless shelter really does open your eyes to the precarious nature of all our lives.
She met a well-spoken, middle-class former teacher, for example, who had a good job and a home in the suburbs before his marriage broke down and financial difficulties ensued.
This community member also met a grandmother of five whose daughter had sadly died leaving her to care for them, a veteran of three wars with PTSD, a woman whose abuse as a child and as a young woman had left her damaged, but who was slowly finding her way back to health and discovering an amazing talent for art along the way… and so many other interesting people. She really did get as much out of the experience as they did.
Volunteering Can Be A Richly Rewarding Experience
It can be really beneficial to our own personal development to meet and speak with individuals whose lives have taken different turns to our own. It can help us understand the complexities of the modern world and its issues. But it can also help us see more clearly that there are more similarities between us all than things which divide us.
When you volunteer for homeless shelter work, this provides you with an opportunity to hone skills that will stand you in good stead in your own everyday life. Simply learning how to speak to people and resolve issues and potential conflicts can be a useful skill.
You might also volunteer in homeless shelter kitchens and learn cooking or preparation skills that will help you cook and eat more thriftily and sustainably at home. You might also, perhaps, learn transferable administrative or cleaning skills, that could help you find paid work in future.
Some homeless shelters even have food-producing gardens, where you could learn more about growing your own food. This could help you to get started with growing your own food at home.
Volunteering at a homeless shelter is not just a kind and ethical thing to do. It can also be beneficial for you as an individual in a wide range of different ways. So if you want to do something great for people in your community who may have fallen on hard times, seek out volunteering opportunities today. You never know just what might come from the experience.
Homelessness should have no place in a fair and sustainable society. We all need to stand up against injustices and try to eradicate the problem through societal reform. We can at the very least do what we can to alleviate the suffering of those who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the streets of our communities. No one should turn a blind eye. At least until we can reach the goals of sustainability and reach the future we all want to see,
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