Just over two years ago, I had my first shift at Jimmy’s Cambridge, an emergency accommodation provider in the heart of Cambridge city. Prior to volunteering, I underwent a DBS check, interview and read a handbook on keeping both myself, and guests, safe. Terrified with the possibilities the handbook presented of guests becoming physically or verbally abusive, I walked into the communal dining room on my first shift as a volunteer so nervous that I could hardly speak. To my surprise, two guests sat next to me and offered biscuits, a cup of tea and a friendly welcome, assuming that I had just moved in and needed someone to talk to.
That was the first of many surprises I had at Jimmy’s that positively shaped how I value myself and other people. In a nutshell, Jimmy’s has taught me to keep challenging my judgments of others and to know that I am still learning every day. Through doing weekly dinner shifts, my confidence slowly improved. I began to value the parts of myself that my academic supervisors couldn’t measure. I built rapport with guests and staff by listening to their stories and remembering the details. I learnt that it is more important to listen than to pretend to you know what you are talking about.
Not long into my volunteering role, a member of staff told me that I should feel privileged when guests share their thoughts with me and I realised that I always had been. For lots of people, using the service is the scariest, most uncertain period of their lives and I always feel honoured when people want to share things. Sometimes it isn’t difficult to know how to empathise, like the time a guy my age told me that he became homeless when his Dad died of cancer and he couldn’t cope with the grief. He isolated himself from his remaining family and dropped out of college. His Dad had cancer the same year my Mum had breast cancer, but where I had been incredibly lucky and received support from my school, family and friends, he had not been.
Sometimes it is harder to know what to say – guests and staff alike have gone through things that I cannot even begin to comprehend. But in those situations it is about realising that you don’t need to say anything at all. Volunteering at Jimmy’s has enabled me to identify the many ways that people are brave and appreciate them in small, simple ways.
It is because of the strength of guests who use Jimmy’s service, and the staff who run it, that I now refuse to call people ‘homeless people’. In my eyes there are only people – homelessness does not define a person and it does not mean helplessness either. The ‘homelessness’ people face is caused by different events, relationships and structural factors. As this film by London charity SPEAR points out, we should ask ourselves, ‘where does homelessness begin?’
We need to rethink homelessness and challenge the unkind stigma surrounding it. I would encourage you to volunteer at a local hostel, shelter or emergency accommodation provider, to ask questions about how homelessness is dealt with at a local and national level, and to work with different people in your local area. If you’re not sure where to start and you’re at a University with a local Hub, get in touch with the team.
Even more, I encourage you now to watch videos like this and think about the ways that you can personally approach people more equally, without blinding labels. I don’t think any of us can ever be completely non-judgmental, but we can allow our judgments of others to change. To rethink homelessness we all need to, and can get better at, treating other people with more kindness – or, rather, sameness.
To find out more about Jimmy’s Cambridge, visit their website.