1. Be willing to help where you are needed. Many agencies are short staffed and rely on volunteers to help. You may want to feed homeless or pass out clothes but are instead asked to sit in an office and stuff envelopes. Guess what? That is the job that needed done. My favorite quote from a friend at an agency was to a woman who didn’t want to do any of the tasks given. She told my friend she only wanted to do the meaningful job that would make an impact on the clients. My friend said, “The meaningful lasting impact job is filled for the day. We need you to sort these envelops because they are for donations and keep the lights on.”
2. Plan ahead before you volunteer. Don’t call the day you want to go in and get upset if the agency can’t take you. Many agencies have volunteers training or require background checks before you can interact with clients. Christmas and Thanksgiving are the two times that agencies are flooded with help, so try to pick a time in the off season. September and October are slow months. If you have a family and want to take your kids try June and July these months kids are typically out of school are also times when agencies are desperate for volunteers.
3. Don’t cancel. I understand that things happen. Try to not double book yourself. The agency is depending on you to help and your last minute cancel leaves them hanging.
4. Don’t party and volunteer. You are fooling no one if you go out drinking the night before or day of and go in reeking of booze. If you are under the influence of any legal or illegal substances please don’t show up high. Many clients are struggling with sobriety and it can be a trigger for them. You may not have a problem with addiction but it would be a shame to cause someone to back slide.
5. Don’t take photos. I often see volunteers take selfies or photos with clients. Please ask the agency first. Most agencies have client’s sign a release if they are willing to be on camera. The agency contact will know if it is okay to take a picture. Remember when you volunteer it isn’t about you, it is about the client’s. Many of them are sad about being homeless or in a shelter. I have heard them say, “When they look at me and take pictures it makes me feel like I’m an animal in the zoo.” Better to wait on the selfie and focus on the opportunity you have to learn and bond with the homeless or the agency employee.
6. Don’t text while you are volunteering. I have seen it before a volunteer is helping with a feeding and sitting holding their phone down texting while a client patiently waits with an empty tray. Many times homeless are overlooked by society. Put your phone on airplane mode and do something radical give homeless clients your 100% time and focus. They will be so appreciative and you will be glad you did.
7. Respect the confidentiality of clients. Some of the clients in shelters or programs have had abusive pasts or even bad run-ins with drug dealers or street thugs. They have trouble with trust and have been let down by society. Listen to them, don’t think about how to relate or trying to tell your stories. Let them do the questioning and unless they express concerns about hurting themselves or others you don’t need to share their information and name with people outside the agency. Try not to share their darkest secrets with social media. Ask yourself, would I want someone I didn’t know sharing my pain or hurt with other people I don’t know?
8. Dress Appropriate. I have seen guys show up in suits to help paint and girls looking like they are going to the club to serve food to a men’s program. Cover up, no revealing clothing, closed toed shoes are best. Dress comfortable because you may be moving around a lot.
9. Treat the clients with respect. Try to be aware of your tone you are taking with homeless clients. Don’t act like you are smarter these are people that have great wisdom. They are survivors and fighters many of them have survived outdoors for years off nothing. Some have even been to prison for years or are ex military. I always say I love getting prison clients they have the best cooking and cleaning tips.
10. Don’t talk about clients when you are at the agency. Some people struggle with mental illness. I am aware that some are stinky or say funny things. If a client is saying disturbing things to you find an agency employee and notify them if you feel you are in danger. Trust me you will probably see some crazy things if you do this long enough. Be aware of your surroundings and stay out of the swing zone. I call this the arm’s length between you and the client. If they should have an episode, leap or spit at you this will give you distance to get away. Save the funny stories till the car ride home. Don’t think I haven’t gotten in my car and howled over a gas filled client who tooted all the way down the line.