A few days ago I have volunteered for the first time in a day centre for homeless people - a site where everyone can have a lunch, a nap, take a shower, change their clothes, see a doctor and in general relax.
While I fully understand that coming up with a lot of conclusions after only doing something once is unhelpful and almost unavoidably naive (let alone that there are many better write-ups of the same experience) I have still been thinking about what I have learned for longer than it could go without getting written down. After all, first impressions, despite often not being accurate enough, have their own merit simply because they are first. Let this post be an attempt to explain what I feel like I need to tell to myself in the first place.
It goes without saying that by taking part in an event like this you help other people a little bit simply because there is a great demand of it, and you provide the supply. This is the main purpose of turning up and doing your shift, and this alone is a reason good enough for doing so.
Yet what else can be the reason for you to do that - or rather what else could you expect? I'd say the main one is that it is a good exercise in humility. Consciously or not, every new joiner imagines themselves doing 'noble' things - at very least having some 'deep' conversations about how our society is broken. No, you'll be picking up rubbish in toilet stalls or mopping up the floors if someone has spilled their meal or even vomited.
Yet the feeling that strikes after the initial confusion is a good one. It is life and it is real work, and it is essential, so you're doing it, and you try to do it well, regardless of what you do outside of this shift. Believe me, after you realise what it is and why were you first confused, it feels good.
The next best thing is that you will meet a large number of very different people. It depends on how social you are in day to day life, but chances are it is going to peak your 'number of people spoken to a day' ratio for the year.
New joiners are usually assigned to tasks in pairs, and you'll have plenty of opportunities to talk to your random partner (and then to the next person at the next task, of which there are going to be many).
In my more than brief experience, volunteers tend to be on a younger side, but there are enough of middle aged and retired people there as well. Occupations also vary (what I have personally heard people mentioning was 'City finance', 'music', 'retail', 'software', 'law', 'charity'), and everyone would be open to having a chat because there is that instant feeling of camaraderie and alignment, even if just for while the shift lasts.
That is going to pierce your social bubble regardless of where on the social spectrum it was centred before.
Another unexpected side effect would be spending a day without touching your phone. The novelty of it, of course, again depends on what is your day to day job, but I believe it's safe to assume drowning in notifications is fairly common. This is because phone use at the centre is restricted for many reasons: there is obviously a ban on taking pictures, then you don't want provoking people into asking to use your personal device, and in general you should be there for guests first and foremost and not scrolling through your timeline.
That, along with with being busy in general, leads to spending a day almost exclusively offline - which feels pleasantly different.
That alone makes it worth coming, even if you don't factor in the actual social good which might be difficult to quantify. A step out of the comfort zone, which is also a benefit to other people is something to be treasured.
There are, however, a few things which would probably make your shift difficult - not physically, but emotionally. Just like before, it goes without saying that it is not easy to see the effects of homelessness that close and realise what other people are going through - but this, while being emotionally taxing, is something that you would probably expect to see. What I want to stop at specifically are the bits that I didn't expect to discover.
The first one is that... there is a limit to which we are all ready to go. Volunteers pep talk predictably puts a strong emphasis on how we are ready and capable of making a difference - intentionally so, because it works and this is how you motivate a large group of people. Yet you will probably soon find out that while you might indeed be ready to do a lot, you aren't ready to do everything, and you will have to reflect on that.
'You don't understand me. You really don't. If you really want to help me, take me home - to YOUR home. See?' - this is something that you might hear, as I did, or, if you don't, you might get a hint of that being strongly implied. Or it might be never be mentioned at all, but it would still be a looming elephant in the room which both sides decide to ignore because otherwise it would make them equally uncomfortable.
So despite all the good intentions it is an unescapable fact that at the end of the day some of us return home and some go back to sleeping in the doorway. And that if we really wanted, we could change that, at some personal cost, but we choose not to.
This problem has no good solution, of course, and it is easy to argue with facts and numbers that doing otherwise is unsustainable - which is true. Yet what would be different this time is that you will have to think about that as it would no longer be possible to brush off easily as something irrelevant.
And this is not a pleasant thought to have.
Next unpleasant discovery was seeing like numbers become people, and then become numbers again. I think it is typical for a fresh joiner to suddenly being exposed to what was invisible before, and so to 'zoom in' and start seeing individuals in people who were previously no more than faceless social group, even if you were sympathetic. This is normal when there was next to no previous interaction, and so this is why the transformation is so insightful.
Yet you might be able to pick up a somewhat different attitude from the most experienced volunteers - people who are coming there often and have built up a lot of field experience. Or it could be just me, but sometimes when they were talking to guests I was registering the same undertones in what they were saying I know very well from teachers in my son's special school (which could be why I noticed that in the first place, but nevertheless).
Unlike you, they can also 'zoom back out'. If I were to come up with a metaphor, it would be 'padded wall' - while polite and understanding, and having their guest's/student's wellbeing as their top priority you can see when the experienced specialist stops engaging deeply and starts 'following the script', and after that there is very little you can do to change the situation.
This usually happens in heated conversations, possibly with shouting or crying involved, and is completely understandable. If a guest is asking for something that cannot be done, it's best to cut it short quickly before it gets personal instead of spending a lot of time trying to understand their reasons and to change their mind through a lengthy argument. I suspect this is especially dramatic to observe for someone who is new, because when they see such interaction, it is their first time, and they expect such an emotional moment it to unfold into a caring debate, and instead what you hear is a polite rephrasing of 'I WON'T BUDGE'. Thing is, that unlike you, experienced people know that scenario well and have dealt with dozens if not hundreds of them, so they know it when the conversation goes nowhere.
Same is true for experienced guests - they also have tried it before and they are picking up the same undertones very well, so they can stop after probing even though they didn't sound like it before. Both sides win, but having to choose where is not productive to engage is another inconvenient truth, and if you are to become an experienced volunteer (and so be much more useful in your role), you'll have to learn the same social scripts and stop treating everything as a unique journey - even though you'll say a different thing to new joiners at the briefing.
Since you cannot do everything, but you want to something, you will have to choose what is that something that you want to do. This is, probably, was the most important lesson.