Throughout December, you’ll have seen declarations of support for the homeless and hungry on Facebook groups, your Instagram feed and in the news. Community groups coming together to feed the hungry through the pandemic, adorned in facemasks and plastic shields and hands anti-bac’d hundreds of times hit the headlines. Celebrities, out in the cold, handing out pre-packed bags with sandwiches or flasks of hot soup were lauded in gossip columns. Local and big businesses alike, pledged to fundraise for a ‘chosen charity’ or sent their staff out on the streets to give out essentials.
But that was December. This is February. How many of those posts do you see now?
It’s a sad fact that all over the UK, grassroots groups and bands of volunteers work hard to offer support to vulnerable communities who are under-served or entirely un-served by local authorities and the government. Whilst these volunteers are generous, kind and fantastically philanthropic, their tireless efforts shouldn’t be required; because such social issues resulting in homelessness, hunger and other vulnerability for the population should be dealt with by the people running the country. Without these volunteers, put simply, people would die. Sadly, sometimes, they do anyway.
As festive cheer ramps up every November and December, organisations often find themselves overwhelmed with offers of support from those who have not worked with them before. I have volunteered with a local street soup kitchen for over five years, with volunteers preparing food and heading out to the streets to serve it twice a week on a rota basis. In December 2020, we received thirty messages from people wanting to volunteer that month. When I messaged back to explain that our volunteer rota had already been agreed for December, but that we would struggle to fill it in January and February, only one of that thirty agreed to volunteer when we needed them. The other twenty-nine never expressed any interest again. These thirty messages were actually less than previous years, as we’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic hit hard on the numbers of those willing to leave their homes (understandably). But either way, the numbers aren’t good.
Grassroots groups, for the most part, receive no funding and often no support from mainstream local services. In the case of the soup kitchen I work with, we work entirely alone and often find ourselves serving hot food cooked up in the kitchen of volunteers outside the very offices our local council reside in. It’s a dismal inditement on modern life. Our very few active volunteers – when not having to self-isolate, work, or, you know, live their own lives – struggle to cover rota gaps, to get food to the city centre, or, during the early lockdowns, to buy ingredients to cook. It’s not a glamorous job and the community served isn’t glamorous either: although 99% of them are very grateful for the efforts made, it’s not unheard of to receive a frosty reception.
Homelessness and hunger is a complex issue – and it ain’t a pretty one. Unfortunately, it too isn’t something that’s going away anytime soon. So why is it we all seem to forget about it through the summer months?
It’s inevitable that for most, the summertime and warmer weather comes with an increased level of social engagements and so, a busier life all ways round. The free time we may have previously had in the evenings to volunteer is taken up with other activity, and it’s not until the snow and plummeting temperatures kick in that we see a tent in the street or a sleeping bag tucked in a shop doorway and consider it again. This is normal human behaviour, sure, but it doesn’t translate well to groups reliant on voluntary support, because despite the levels of those willing or able to help dropping, the problem of homelessness and hunger doesn’t abate. It’s just less visible. Or at least, less noticed.
Summer 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, would perhaps have been the first big opportunity for people to acknowledge an increased visibility of homelessness through summer. More people were off work than usual yet less businesses were open, so you’d be less likely to be out drinking but perhaps more likely to be out for a walk. Yet miraculously, the government managed to do exactly what they’d said previously they couldn’t: house the homeless! The Everyone In scheme housed 15,000 vulnerable people for the duration of the first UK lockdown but wasn’t continued in to further coronavirus restriction periods. This was and is hugely frustrating for those working and volunteering in the sector as it proves what they’ve been preaching since the day dot – people deserve housing, and it can be given by the powers that be… if they choose to do so.
With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that volunteers working with the homeless, hungry and vulnerable are feeling fatigue; physically, mentally, and emotionally; and now more so than most years. With the festive cheer and community spirit that 2020 sparked now far behind us, it’s not uncommon to find volunteer rotas sparse and food stocks running low. Many volunteers will tell you this is the same year-on-year but things are even more difficult this year as they work to not just fill bellies, but to save lives too. To agree to volunteer just during the festive period conveys disingenuity in the care for the cause, but is also disrespectful to those who struggle to do it all year round. It’s not easier in the summer or tougher in the winter – homelessness sucks 365 days a year.
So, if you’re able to, now’s the time to volunteer and hit the ground running in a practical way that provides tangible and real help to those that best need it. Working on the streets in the summer is considerably more comfortable than through colder weather anyway, and by the time Christmas 2021 rolls around, you’ll be a seasoned expert; having earnt the trust of the community you serve, built rapport with your fellow volunteers and gained plenty of experience.
There is kindness abound to be found amongst homeless, hungry and vulnerable communities, and once you find it, you’ll never look back. Don’t wait until December to seek it out. Care all year round… and start right now.
The header image on this article was taken by Joel Muniz, for Unsplash.