It’s 5pm and quiet at Shelter From The Storm, a homeless refuge just down the road from Pentonville Prison in Islington.
Outside, it’s raining – not quite a storm, but persistent enough to be unpleasant. In another hour, the place will come alive as the guests – 36 men and women of varying races and ages, all well-presented and unfailingly polite but each with a sense of weariness about them – will file in to receive food and shelter for the night.
I’m tasked with making sure their stomachs are full.
It’s a mammoth effort to feed and bed that many people and one that wouldn’t be possible without the help of a team of willing volunteers, all from different walks of life, and all with different motivations, but all with one goal: to help their fellow human beings.
As the guests begin arriving, and in between chopping a huge mound of vegetables that will form the basis of a hearty stew, Craig, a 32-year-old pharmaceutical company business manager, talks about the year since he began volunteering. Introduced through a friend, he now can’t imagine life without helping.
“I travel quite a bit with my job and I notice that if I don’t come down here, I almost get withdrawal symptoms,“ he says. “I miss it. It sounds a bit cliché, but it really is addictive. It’s a good feeling to help these guys out.“
With two years at Shelter From The Storm under her belt, Tamhi, a 25-year-old biomedical laboratory worker, is an old hand.
Her satisfaction comes from mingling with the guests, providing an ear and a friendly face at the end of a hard day.
She became a volunteer to meet new people and fend off a sense of loneliness she felt was encroaching on her life.
“It’s not just about me giving,“ she insists. “I definitely get back as well, a lot. It’s helping give me experience in a field I’m interested in, social work, and I’ve met some great people here. You form a little team. It can be great fun.“
But the attitudes of Tamhi and Craig are not ones held by everyone. Tough economic times, if the latest Attitudes report from the National Centre of Social Research is to be believed, are resulting in a less-engaged British public, one much more hesitant about making sacrifices for others.
The report suggests a growing view that it’s the responsibility of the individual to get through, rather than any subscription to the David Cameron Big Society theory of everyone pitching in to help each other.
“In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves?“ Penny Young, the centre’s chief executive, says.
“An emerging sense of self-reliance may take the government some way toward its vision of a more responsible society, but an emphasis on individualism, not
Big Society collectivism, may present as much of a challenge as it does an opportunity.“ As a result, volunteers for a range of organisations, from homeless shelters to support for parents struggling to cope to children’s charities, are more sought-after than ever.
Among the most well-known of these groups is Crisis, another homeless shelter, which opens its doors to volunteers at Christmas.
Celebrating its 40th year, Crisis is usually met with a strong response. Indeed, in 2010, in just one week at Christmas, 670 guests used healthcare consultants; 280 accessed dentistry; 235 were seen by a podiatrist; 255 had their vision checked by opticians. The demand for help is definitely out there.
Gordon Owen, a Crisis advice services manager with 30 years in volunteering, hopes the current doom and gloom and financial tightening-up will bring a positive effect to the sector.
“From the volunteers’ perspective, people can’t afford to go out and about, to go clubbing and partying, as much as they used to,“ he says. “So the temptation to help out is there, as it won’t cost them anything and they can do something good at the same time.“
But while Owen suggests that the connection involved in volunteering is far greater than that of an employee at work – because the motivation isn’t purely about money – he insists it’s not all sunshine and light.
“There are some difficult times; people in an upset state and you have to deal with that – sometimes, you find yourself becoming emotionally involved,“ he says. “Last year, in inclement weather there were more people out there than Crisis could accomodate. That was hard – when you’ve only got 150 beds and 200 people wanting them … some don’t get in.“
Back at Shelter For The Storm, it’s now 7pm and my stew is ready to be served. It’s been a full-on two hours, complete with burns, cuts and an incessant worry that it won’t taste as good as it should.
My evening is far from over though; washing up is still to be done, but as I watch Craig serving up a line of hungry guests and Tamhi chatting away, I’m aware that what initially was just a room has now become a home, and the longer-term volunteers, once just another face like me, a type of family, an accepting presence at the end of a draining day.
And Tamhi reinforces that: “For me coming down here, and to the other places I volunteer, has become a big part of my life,“ she says.
“You tell people about it and it becomes a chain of connections when they come down. And, you can see that you can bring a positive element to someone else’s life … even if it is simply talking about their day with them.“ ❚
Shelter From The Storm
London’s only free homeless shelter is open all year round and receives no help from the government, relying solely on the generous donations and the work of volunteers. It caters for 18 men and 18 women, seven days a week. Volunteering duties include cooking, cleaning and supervising overnight. The shelter’s end goal is to help guests into employment and on to a positive path in life. It is currently seeking singers for a choir at its annual fete. If you can help, contact via firstname.lastname@example.org
Crisis At Christmas
Crisis At Christmas, celebrating its 40th year in 2011, provides nine shelters throughout London from December 23-30. As such, it requires the help of more than 8000 volunteers, from hairdressers and cooks to entertainers and those with the ability to speak another language. If you’re unable to help at the festival period, Crisis still needs volunteers to help in its centres all