My last blog post plugged the 'Crisis at Christmas' services laid on in London, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Newcastle and Oxford, which are made possible for 3,000 homeless guests by over 8,000 volunteers. Hence my surprise to read a recent article in the Guardian by Derek Mace from a South Western housing charity Coastline Housing entitled 'Want to volunteer to help homeless people this Christmas? Please don't.'
Crisis eagerly recruit volunteers around the festive period to help with their 'Crisis at Christmas' shelter service. Derek Mace, however, argues that Christmas-time volunteering merely soothes people's consciences and comes from a place of sympathy rather than empathy. Sympathy, he argues, is not what his clients need and therefore the work much better left to the professionals. Furthermore, he considers the cost of training up 'fairweather' volunteers as diverting scant resources from the clients who truly need them. Essentially, he urges people who only want to help for the short-term to stay away since they do more harm than good.
However, I would argue that Derek Mace ignores a huge benefit of so-called 'fairweather' volunteering; participation and engagement in homelessness issues. Here at The Pavement Perspective, we think people find it all too easy to ignore homelessness and rely upon blaming individuals for their own situation without much knowledge about the kinds of circumstances affecting those without stable housing. The only way to dispel such myths is to encourage people to actually engage with those living on the streets and learn about their situation. Recruiting Christmas-time volunteers is an excellent way for some charities at least to draw people in - what might begin as sympathy may graduate to empathy once their understanding has developed. It also follows that if you are engaged at Christmas, you will be more likely to engage for the rest of the year.
Furthermore, to bash volunteering as 'fairweather' is to undermine the place where it comes from within people - a desire to make a positive impact in the world around them, as highlighted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his New Year message. We should recognise that any type of engagement is positive. The number of people who believe the homeless are junkie-waster-good-for-nothings vastly outweighs those who care. So, rather than berating those who are meaning well, perhaps we should focus our efforts on berating those who do not mean well in any sense - and lack both empathy and sympathy.