The Secret of Outstanding Volunteers: How to Really Help Out at a Homeless Shelter

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July 18, 2016 by poverty2professional

Having been homeless as well as having been engaged in regular community service through high school and college, I can thoroughly describe both sides of the volunteer experience at a homeless shelter. This post will examine my experience as a recipient of volunteer services (e.g. the “getting” side of the food line) and what some of the best practices of volunteers have been over that time.

But before we go any further, I must highlight one particular quote by late author and advocate Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This about sums up volunteering. The most outstanding volunteers whom I have had the pleasure of meeting have always left me with a warm, positive feeling. To reiterate from an earlier post, volunteers are the breath of fresh air at the shelter. A volunteer is someone who comes from “the outside” (i.e. they transcend the environment of the shelter) – they are not staff, they are not a board member, and they are not another potential roommate who is being shown around the premise – a volunteer is at the shelter for one purpose only: To help the residents.

To that end, the one quality that makes one volunteer exceptional – in both memory and practice – is gregarious empathy. Let me break that down. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to see circumstances from their perspective. Gregarious is just a $64 word that means you like to socialize and hang out with people in general. The best volunteers express a combination of these traits. They don’t just stand behind the counter and serve food, they use their break time to come over and sit at the fold-out dinner tables and chairs with the residents. They ask how we’re doing, what interests the family’s kids have, and what some of our favorite pastimes include.

That second part right there is empathy. For some folks, volunteering might be an obligation, such as a student attempting to meet a quota of community service hours, but that doesn’t mean that the people being served by the volunteer see it the same way. Being treated with dignity is one of the most essential qualities to understanding and properly supporting advocacy around homelessness. Treating someone with dignity means being humble about your service. There is no need to brag or even consistently remarking how grateful you are that you’re not the service recipient. Treating someone with dignity also means being respectful of privacy. My dad and I were fairly open about sharing how we had come into our straits. Other families didn’t care to broach the subject, often finding it unsettling for both themselves and their children. At the end of the day, it’s not the resident’s position to satisfy the volunteer’s passing curiosity.

Empathy also means be sensitive to the very real and very difficult circumstances of people in homelessness. This means knowing that while someone might have loved watching the same TV shows as you that they may not necessarily have had the chance to catch up and share their reactions to the latest season. You shouldn’t have to ask why. Give yourself twenty seconds of think time. Yup, it’s because they don’t have a home to enjoy even simple entertainment anymore.

I know the example may sound incredibly obvious, but it is easy to get caught up in a moment of sharing (that’s a good feeling to have!). So, instead just politely ask, “Have you had the opportunity to visit XYZ place or see the newest such-and-such movie?” Checking in with yourself (i.e. being aware of your conversation) is a good sign. It means you’re being conscientious and considerate of others’ feelings. I wish some volunteers who once visited during the holidays had had that level of self-awareness. If you slip, gently apologize and move the conversation forward with pleasant topics. Folks in homelessness are keenly aware of the situation. A volunteer’s job isn’t to make them forget but to help cope and take heart in both positive memories and opportunity ahead.

To support social empathy in conversations around homelessness, there is one type of phrasing I avoid. You’ve probably heard it in discussions about homelessness everywhere, from the media to a town hall discussion to a Google search; I avoid referring to people struggling with homelessness as “the homeless.” Social propriety has eliminated referring to groups of people by their ethnicity or sexual orientation (i.e. we don’t say “the gays,” “the Mexicans,” etc.) on grounds of common decency. However, we have not yet examined the degradation of classism in our country. After all, low-income areas that gentrify are considered “up and coming” as much asĀ  Expunge this phrase from your use.

Finally, if you ever find yourself at a loss for words or conversation, just listen. Being an attentive listener makes the people who are talking to you feel valued and appreciated. When homelessness so often puts your self-worth as a human being at the bottom of the social ladder, a good listener can validate your experience. Volunteering with people in homelessness is not rocket science. It boils down to the golden rule we were all told some variant of as kids: Treat others as you would like to be treated for they are another you.



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