Caring at Christmas is a homeless shelter in Bristol, which provides people with warmth and safe accommodation over the Christmas period. My first experience of volunteering in 2011 left me let’s say, philosophical, about homelessness in the city and my contribution towards relieving it. After returning for a second time in 2012 I felt more optimistic. So what did my third year volunteering at the project yield? – an opportunity for growth. This year as well as being a general volunteer and gaining experience in different areas, I also undertook the responsibility of being a supervisor. It was an on-the job learning experience and at times I definitely felt my heart in my mouth. Despite this I left feeling like I had made a valuable contribution. So to keep up with tradition, here are a few thoughts on my third Caring at Christmas experience and why I value it so highly.
Caring at Christmas
Providing approximately 50 beds for homeless people as well as around 300 hot meals a day for residents and other guests the shelter operates over the peak Christmas period providing for Bristol’s homeless as other support services are reduced for the Christmas holidays. In many cases this is the only time a guest will have access to the same bed for 7 consecutive nights and are guaranteed a safe place and a hot meal for this length of time (not to mention the all important Christmas Dinner!). In addition, snacks, cakes hot drinks and entertainment and services are provided such as arts and creative activities, first aid, live music, companionship, counseling, showers and laundry service, hairdressing, footcare and recreational opportunities such as DVDs, pool, table football, ping pong, board games and jigsaw puzzles as well as the provision of clothes, toiletries, sleeping bags, blankets and rucksacks. For the rest of the year the shelter is operated by the charity The Julian Trust who provide around 90 hot meals and 18 beds a night for 5 nights a week. Caring at Christmas also research and produce the survival handbook an annually printed resource and support services guide for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness in Bristol. Whilst having a core component of staff, approximately 700 volunteers support the charitable project and it’s funded by donations and contributions from a wide variety of sources including individuals, groups, schools, communities, companies and businesses. For me this year was slightly different as in addition to companionship and spending time with guests, I also gained experience and an insight into working the on staff door/donations, the kitchen, admin and working the night shift.
Volunteering and on being a supervisor
Whilst I have previously been a general volunteer, to be in a position of responsibility and an identified person people sought in an emergency was a daunting prospect. There were always numerous volunteers on shift but the nature of the environment can occasionally be dynamic and this was in the forefront of my mind when I first applied. A supervisor assists the lead supervisor in maintaining the smooth running and safety of guests and volunteers at the shelter. This can be anything from answering queries, dealing with resource issues to assisting with first aid incidents, fire evacuation and managing conflict.
Whilst professionally, I’ve previously been responsible for managing small projects, assisting directly in an operational capacity and being responsible for people, particularly those who could be described as vulnerable (or in a vulnerable condition) was a new situation for me. The shelter is an environment which demands that you be reactive and whilst there are regular tasks to be performed on every shift, it can also be difficult to predict what sort of things will happen each time. For the most part, the only way to learn is to turn up each day and gain the experience. I was fortunate enough to be in a supervisory team of three serving alongside experienced staff so I was never made to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility and always felt supported. I also took part in the St John’s ambulance first aid course that was offered and undertook the shelter’s own supervisory training session. During my time volunteering I had to draw on things I learnt during both these sessions, but even so, it’s hard to be fully prepared for the first time someone faints on you!
It’s true to say it seemed there was less time to become absorbed in the individual stories and lives of the guests, less time for the fun or creative activities I’d become used to (although I did manage to squeeze in a few turns at monopoly and some clowning around at the ping pong table). Instead I began to gain an insight into what it takes to run a project, learn more about the experiences and expectations of the volunteers and begin to understand the resources, processes and vast numbers of people needed to make it all possible. Once again I was amazed at the generosity of so many donating time, abilities, money and resources to Caring at Christmas. It seemed that no matter whatever skills people had there was a way they could contribute, from local groups knitting clothes, to businesses and community organisations donating fresh produce, to individuals and groups contributing their annual secret santa presents or children sacrificing their months pocket money.
I also got the opportunity to witness how Caring at Christmas has grown and developed over the past few years and how it continues to evolve. The need to be reactive is necessary not just operationally (working and managing more efficiently) but also organisationally (maintaining sustainability) as particularly so in times of austerity when the risk to charities which rely on donations can be a significant one. Additionally harder times will often mean there are even more people who rely on those organisations which meet a social need or provide a social service. The issues of homelessness are not unique to our time, however, the ways in which these can be addressed are always developing. One of the best things about working in an environment with volunteers is that people participate to honour a cause they believe in, help others or develop specific skills and its exactly that motivation and passion which forges an environment where innovation can happen.
Homelessness in Bristol – improving services and understanding need
As ever the experience of Caring at Christmas perhaps illustrated both the best and worst of the human spirit. The shelter provides a glimpse into the existence of homeless people in Bristol, but after 3 years of volunteering I realise that beyond the immediate provision of food and shelter there is a lot more to understand about the complex nature of homelessness and the associated social problems that can be both a cause or a consequence, as well as the varied pathways and means to solutions (presuming that a solution is desired at all as this is not always the case for each person).
Walking home from my shifts at Christmas, I discovered that there were others on the streets that chose not to stay or eat at the shelter, and I wondered why this was and how many others or ‘hidden homeless’ there were out there. Whilst the Christmas spirit may be a motivator for many people in making a contribution to the shelter and there is a pragmatic need for additional support services over the Christmas period, the reality is for many of the guests is that homelessness persists all year round. So it follows that so does the need for support and services as well as the funds and volunteers to make them happen.
Hello 2015! From Caring at Christmas to Caring in Bristol
The face to face shelter environment can be an intense one and for me its always necessary to take a few days after the experience to reflect on how things went, the stories I heard, the decisions I made and what I could have improved upon. My supervisory experience amounted to just two shifts but it was enough to install within me the significance of the responsibility, which is the main thing I will take with me from this year. No matter what training you receive in many ways to succeed in a dynamic operational environment there is simply no other way to learn other than working as a team, relying on others to guide you and doing the best you can. Whilst the Caring at Christmas shelter has now closed, the good news is that this year, the journey doesn’t end on January 1st. As Caring in Bristol (the shelter’s parent company) develops, there are further opportunities to get involved throughout the year, whether this is through fund and awareness raising, taking part in sponsored events, developing projects, skills and knowledge or gaining practical experience, all whilst working with a committed team and volunteers dedicated to making a positive difference and responding to homelessness as a community issue.
I’ll be continuing the journey by, amongst other things, jumping out of a plane.
Caring at Christmas is a project by Caring in Bristol, a charitable company which delivers and develops vital support to homeless and vulnerable people all year round through effective, volunteer driven projects. Visit the Caring in Bristol website for more information and to find out how you can contribute.