How to Become an Active Volunteer and Help the Homeless

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London Calling investigates what you can do to help the 6000 people that sleep rough in London

Despite London being one of the richest cities on Earth there is a huge issue with homelessness. London Calling finds out what you can do to help those sleeping rough.

No one plans on being homeless. One study found 7% of those aged 16-24 are homeless. Another report calculated that London last year had 6,000 rough sleepers - a 37% increase from 2010. London is one of the affluent capitals of the world, yet also has a housing problem. It’s hard to know how to personally make a difference: you can’t give money to every homeless person you pass on your commute to work, let alone on the journey back as well.

Last month, I volunteered for a week of night shifts (10pm - 8:30am) at one of the homeless shelters operated by the charity Crisis over Christmas. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’ll be doing the same next year.

From the 23rd to 29th of December, Crisis shelters welcomed 3,600 vulnerable guests from London’s cold outdoors into a safe place with a roof. They received three hot meals a day, a bed, haircuts, dental check-ups, new clothes, showers, and access to the internet - some reconnected with family members after years of silence. They could speak to Samaritans, Alcoholics Anonymous, immigration experts, housing advisors, and receive help in building a CV. They were in a safe environment without being judged.

This can’t happen without volunteers. Duties range from making coffee, playing board games, manning reception, organising karaoke, to keeping watch in the sleeping rooms - this responsibility, as strange as it sounds, is crucial. I learned from guests how being homeless means it isn’t safe to sleep at night: rough sleepers are attacked by strangers and urinated on by drunks. They wait until daytime to shut their eyes. In the shelter, having someone watching over them was a luxury.

While I’m not entirely sure why I picked night shifts - morning and afternoon schedules are available - it meant having the kind of deep, intimate conversations that can only take place at 4am when the rest of London is asleep. Some have a history of mental illness; some are victims of domestic violence; local councils regularly send vulnerable people back to the streets without any assistance.

Despite the emotional nature of the week, there’s an intensely fun and positive atmosphere. Guests are delighted to escape homelessness for the week, and volunteers are thrilled to be helping out. Seriously, it couldn’t be more different from the typical London vibe of cantankerous strangers who’ll shove you aside for a free newspaper on the tube.

Ideally, each guest walks out at the end of the week prepared for a new start, after receiving a confidence boost and professional advice on what to do next. Some find housing or line up a job interview during their stay. Others are back on the streets.

While Crisis operates as a charity throughout the year, its shelters only run during Christmas and will of course be doing the same in 2015. Until then, there are still numerous ways of being an active volunteer and seeing first-hand how you’re making a difference.

1. Street Souls

For the first and third Friday night of each month, volunteers gather at Christchurch Gardens to provide nutritious food, extra clothing, and even warmer company to the homeless. Newcomers are welcome and should subscribe to the Facebook page for updates and heartwarming stats - since inception they’ve distributed more than 6,000 sleeping bags, 18,000 hot meals and 24,000 sandwiches.

2. Hackney Winter Night Shelter

From 1st November to 31st March, Hackney’s churches alternate to become temporary shelters that offer bed, breakfast, and help to find sustainable accommodation. Roles include preparing breakfast and welcoming guests in the evening, but there’s a particular need for overnight volunteers (10pm-7am). Available duties and sign-up information can be found here.

3. Homeless Kitchen London

When a few squatters were evicted on Christmas Eve at the end of last year, they set up an impromptu 24-hour soup kitchen in Trafalgar Square. Launched from unfortunate circumstances, the small group have already proved effective in handing out food, drink, sleeping bags and clothes. To volunteer or donate clothes, more information is on the Facebook page.

4. CARIS Islington Cold Weather Shelter

Despite the ostentatious portrayal of Islington in cinema - including three terrible Hugh Grant films - the borough is actually one of the poorest in the UK. From January to March, seven local churches double up as overnight shelters and of course require volunteers. Visit here for more information.

5. March for the homeless on 15th April 2015

Got a blank space in your diary on 15th April? An organised march through central London is planned for that day, in which protests will be made against how local boroughs don’t do enough to support the homeless. The accompanying hashtag (#NoMoreDeathOnOurStreets) contains too many characters for practical Twitter use, but expresses the meaningful sentiment behind the event.

6. The Passage

The Passage’s day centre has been running for 30 years, in addition to a core of outreach workers who check up on rough sleepers around Victoria. The charity, which largely operates on donations, also lists volunteer opportunities for small roles that often only require a commitment of two hours a week - such as slotting in on reception, assisting in the kitchen, or providing haircuts.

7. The Sleeping Bag Appeal

One of my fellow volunteers at Crisis Christmas came up with this idea: he posted an address for anyone to donate sleeping bags, which he’ll personally distribute to rough sleepers around London. The campaign’s Facebook page has the details, as well as photographs of appreciative recipients.

8. Shelter from the Storm

Launched in 2007, Shelter from the Storm runs the only homeless shelter that’s open all year. This feat is even more impressive considering the charity receives no government assistance, and relies upon the kindness of strangers. Subsequently, the shelter always needs new helpers, particularly for shifts in the evening (7pm-11pm) and overnight (9pm-6:30am). Sign-up forms can be found here.

More information about Crisis Christmas and what Crisis does during the year can be found here.