I’ve volunteered for around 14 months for NSNO. I do a fortnightly shift on the helpline.
Why do I volunteer? Firstly, NSNO makes it really easy. Evening and weekend shifts are exactly what works for me, and what NSNO needs. And they are very flexible about changing dates. A lot of organisations are looking for weekly daytime shifts which would be difficult for me to juggle with my job.
Secondly, curiosity. Around the time I saw the advert for NSNO volunteers, I was passing a homeless man on my way to work. He had about 5 suitcases and lots of bags with him on the same spot every day. Eventually I got speaking to him. He didn’t seem “helpless” and was in touch with the council, and he had an interesting perspective on his situation. But I still found it baffling that someone could spend literally months on the street.
Thirdly, volunteering for NSNO is an antidote to my day job! I work in the public sector and although we are also helping people, my work is mainly managerial. Working on the NSNO referral line means dealing directly with clients and assisting people in a very immediate, practical way which I enjoy.
What have I learned? Firstly, I do think I have helped people – or at least helped to help people. At a minimum it is important there is a voice at the end of the phone. But I know that, although not everyone who calls is found by outreach teams, a lot are, and NSNO can help many of them. It’s really rewarding when someone you’ve spoken to on the phone is found and brought into the hub.
Secondly, there’s a but! The ways homelessness services work is really confusing. I thought I would understand things once I started volunteering but it’s not simple. There are myriad day centres, charities, soup runs, and several outreach organisations. One thing frustrates me in particular: we get quite a few calls from people who have just left prison and find themselves homeless. Being released from prison is a predictable event, so it must be possible to prevent ex-prisoners immediately becoming homeless.
Finally, volunteering for NSNO makes me feel like a better Londoner. Practically, I spend a lot of time looking at maps of the city to try and locate where people are sleeping. But what I really mean is that NSNO takes me out of my “bubble” – a comfortable existence shuttling between my job and established social circle. With NSNO, I speak to people I’d never normally meet, and feel more connected to a different side ofLondon. You look at places through different eyes once you know a homeless person goes to sleep there.