A recent chat about the need for a volunteer charter with Charlie, a long standing and prolific Listen Up reporter, has got my grey matter bubbling. Charlie is usually worth listening to because, not only is he informed by his own experience of homelessness but as an advocate he is able to draw on the experience of many others.
It is difficult to argue against the assertion that homeless services have improved over the past 20 years, especially when it comes to valuing the voice of people with experience of homelessness. For so long, that top down, hand out, pity-driven brand of charity would frame those people experiencing homelessness as wretched and helpless.
Gradually though, that Victorian template for the delivery of homeless services is being replaced by something more holistic. This modern, progressive vision started to take root when charities stopped thinking of people who were homeless as incapable.
One of the major pillars of the temple of old school charity is this idea that if people couldn’t keep a roof over their heads, then they were probably not going to know what is good for them. Of course, this vision was compounded by the idea that we are all drug addicts with mental health issues whose judgment is severely compromised by drugs or the fog of insanity.
Since that seed was planted sometime in the 90s it has blossomed into the understanding that services are better when shaped and driven by the people who have had experience of the salient issues. At the inception of this revolution in service delivery, services would ask people what they wanted rather than telling them what they needed as they had done previously. When this feedback started to spawn positive change, services found a way to engage people with lived experience of homelessness as volunteers. Rather than having to constantly find people experiencing homelessness in hostels or on the streets every time you wanted to make a co-produced decision it made more sense to have people on hand, as part of the set-up,
As is usually the case with change, this began with a lot of tick boxing and tokenism. Some people in the sector embraced the change because they thought it was the right choice. They thought it was ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ and morally right. But others saw its potential straight off the bat. For them it wasn’t just the right way to run a service in the homeless sector, but it was also the most effective and efficient.
When this evidence became apparent, volunteers with lived experience began to be offered paid roles. It was perfect when you think about it. Decisions could be informed by those who knew what it is like to be homeless and for some it offered a potentially gentle and seamless path back to mainstream employment.
Prior to this revolution volunteers were generally people who were retired or had the financial security that allowed them to spend some of their time helping others. In the past twenty years a new type of volunteer has emerged with experience of the issues they are working on. These volunteers help others by helping themselves, with society benefiting as a part of that bargain.
But like many new ways of doing things that develop in this organic way, the volunteer sector has grown faster than the guidelines offered to protect volunteers.
Why would we need to protect people I hear you ask? Well to be honest there’s a shed load of reasons, including stuff like burn-out, lack of progression and a failure to compensate people financially for fair and reasonable expenses among others.
The danger is that before decision makers realise it, the new way of doing things becomes entrenched into a system and any failing to protect volunteers becomes systemic. Systemic failings are notoriously hard to fix and the more entrenched they become over time the harder that fix becomes.
It was with this thought in mind that Charlie and me chatted for a long old while about the need for a charter to protect volunteers from the impact of systemic failure.
I’m going to be writing more about this over the next few weeks so please comment below if there is anything you would like me to look into as I investigate the arguments both for and against a volunteer charter.