Homeless Shelter Supporter

Insider Info

The exact number of people who are homeless each year is very hard to determine. But estimates put the number at around two million homeless people per year in the U.S. alone. Thankfully, for many people who find themselves homeless, there are shelters and missions where they can stay overnight.

In some cases, those organizations even offer assistance in getting back to a regular life. An army of homeless shelter supporters, or volunteers, usually provides that assistance.

A homeless shelter supporter can perform a variety of different jobs, from serving food to cleaning or handling paperwork. Many volunteers also teach skills such as job skills, parenting skills or other life skills to people who find themselves homeless.

Volunteering as a homeless shelter supporter requires only a willingness to help. In some cases, that means all you need to do is teach the person how to take care of himself, and listen.

The ability to listen well and have empathy for the person to whom you are listening are essential skills for anyone who wishes to volunteer in a homeless shelter.

Virginia Sellner is a volunteer and the director of a homeless organization. She says the work she does gives her a "sense of doing something worthwhile. I've been doing it since 1993 and I don't want to be paid -- money clouds the issue."

The benefits to the shelter are many. Volunteers help save money that can be put to better use and people who need compassionate human contact receive that.

The number of people who become homeless, even for a short amount of time, is estimated to triple each year. And where men were once more likely to be homeless, now young women with children are more likely to be on the streets.

Sometimes the people who end up in a homeless shelter are not who you would typically expect to be there. For example, Sellner was pleasantly surprised at a guest who stayed in her shelter one night.

"A visiting missionary from a shelter in California, who was originally from Nigeria, was driving her car to another part of the country and the car broke down. She had to stay with us until it was fixed," says Sellner.

"Her stories about Nigeria and her missionary work in this country were most interesting and could have been made into a book." Sellner says it is clients like these that make her want to volunteer there.

"It will open your eyes and help break down stereotypes, because you will find the homeless, just like any other people, only needing a little TLC [tender loving care]."

David Weston is a volunteer at a homeless shelter in New York City. He agrees. "There is no amount of money you can give to a homeless person that will get them off the streets," he says.

"Volunteering at a shelter makes you part of a link in a chain of agencies that address the problems that keep a person on the streets."

Weston says that one of the benefits of volunteering is "being part of the solution -- walking the talk."

Strange things may happen when you're volunteering for a homeless shelter, though. In Weston's case, he stays overnight at the shelter. "Sleeping over my first night was the most frightening part of volunteering. I just couldn't relax."

It turns out that is understandable. "The weirdest thing that has ever happened to me was a guest who was sleepwalking and woke me up," says Weston.

Volunteering at a homeless shelter has great benefits, too. Catherine Latham is director of a Salvation Army center. "Volunteering augments resume skills," she says.

"We have a variety of volunteers, from university students pursuing social services degrees to budding young chefs and retired folks who are in transition after retirement," she says.

"Volunteers enhance the services we provide because we don't always have time to start one-on-one recreational activities with our clients, or to help with their daily activities."

Such daily activities might include accompanying a person to the store to purchase hygiene items or helping them fill out paperwork to improve their situation.

"Have a really good look around," advises Latham. "Try a test shift, and understand that it takes time to build your comfort level."

How to Get Involved

Volunteering with a homeless shelter requires no special training. Getting involved is as easy as going to your nearest shelter.

Most shelters require that volunteers be at least 18 years of age. But some will allow volunteers who are 16.

The physical requirements for volunteering at a homeless shelter vary. You may be doing maintenance, helping with daily activities, serving food or a variety of other jobs. Shelters will place you in the job for which you are best suited.


Salvation Army National Headquarters
Find out how you can get involved

New Generation of Volunteers
Learn how to get involved and make a difference

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