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Tensions between night-shelter volunteers and guests exposed in Theos study

29 September 2023


TENSIONS between what volunteers and guests prefer when it comes to night-shelter models are an example of the “uncomfortable or even painful” conversations that may need to take place in the voluntary sector, a new report from Theos suggests.

Volunteering after the Pandemic: Lessons from the homelessness sector, commissioned by the Christian homelessness charity Housing Justice and published earlier this month, includes a study of the shift in the model for night shelters since the Covid-19 pandemic.

The authors, Hannah Rich and George Lapshynov, write that, before the pandemic, “the prevalent model for these, particularly within the Housing Justice network, was a rotating night shelter model, hosted by seven churches or community spaces in a borough, each taking one night a week throughout the winter season.”

This model largely ended during the pandemic, with a move to a “static shelter model” in which guests were housed in hotels, hostels, or redundant student accommodation, and had their own bedroom. This has largely remained in place, data suggest. Within the Housing Justice network, 61 per cent of shelters were still operating a single-room model in 2022-23 (in 2019-20, all 71 operated the communal model).

The report notes positive aspects of the “upheaval”, including “a refining and reassessment of volunteer roles and practices” and “innovation in the way projects were resourced”. But it also explores the impact on volunteers, who “liked the communal nature of the previous model, its warmth, the sense of belonging, the idea of seeing friends, the relationships built and the feeling of doing something together”.

This is contrasted with evidence about the preference of shelter guests. One charity manager observed: “I have yet to hear a single person who has experienced rough sleeping and has stayed in a night shelter who says they much prefer a church hall of 12 people . . . than sleeping in their own room.”

The authors suggest that the example illustrates “the importance of bringing volunteers along with the change process as comprehensively as is possible outside of crisis situations. . . It was also acknowledged that while volunteer experience should not be prioritised above that of the guests, realistically, volunteers do need to feel satisfaction and value in what they do if they are to continue volunteering. It is therefore important to hold this tension carefully.”

Among the report’s final recommendations is the observation that “conversations about the tension between volunteer expectations and what is best for guests are often uncomfortable or even painful. They require close examination of why people volunteer and and whether, at times, this can even be unhelpful for those being supported. . .

“However, these conversations might be the beginning of a new paradigm for the voluntary sector. The recognition that volunteers benefit from the relationships they develop through engagement begs the question of what might replace this if night shelters, or indeed food banks, ceased to exist. This might lead to developing spaces like the warm welcome spaces of this winter, which meet both material and relational needs without perpetuating models that don’t help guests.”

The report draws on research conducted in March to June this year: an online survey of volunteers and staff from the Housing Justice network (39 respondents) and 16 qualitative interviews. It also includes data from national sources, illustrating that there has been a “marked decline in volunteering over recent years”.

Data from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport suggest that participation rates in formal volunteering in 2022 were the lowest recorded for a decade: seven million people in England took part in formal volunteering at least once a month, compared with 11 million in 2019-20. The number of people who began formally volunteering for the first time in 2021 was 57 per cent lower than in 2019. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the small charities that responded to the VCSE Sector Barometer, a survey carried out in June, cited volunteer recruitment as a major organisational concern.

The Theos report cites “a combination of changed working patterns, retirement, economic pressures, and a difference in the ‘offer’ that volunteers are now looking for after the pandemic” as possible causes of the reduction in volunteers. Among its recommendations is introducing greater flexibility of volunteer placement, including short-term opportunities for younger people.

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