Volunteering: Policy Press help to put the homely into homeless shelter

Social issues such as homelessness and the support of the most vulnerable people in our society are key for Policy Press. Each year we support charities in a number of ways, but this year we took our support to the next level, offering up our time in addition to fundraising.

Volunteering is an important way in which many people support and are supported within our society. Rebecca Megson reports on Policy Press’ experience of volunteering at Bristol based homeless charity St Mungo’s Broadway and talks to authors Sue Baines and Irene Hardill about how volunteering has changed in the past 20 years.

Photo credit: Shelter

Photo credit: Shelter

The season of merriment is all but upon us but the reality is that Christmas is not necessarily a joyous time for all. Homeless charity Shelter have reported a 30% rise in the number of calls they are fielding from individuals and families who fear they may be homeless this year.

As an organisation we’ve been supporting homeless charity St Mungo’s Broadway throughout 2014, running charity quizzes, sporting and other events to garner sponsorship for them as our ‘chosen charity’. This was the first time, however, that we’d provided practical, hands-on help.

It was a slightly wet, grey day as we all trooped down to St Mungo’s Broadway, dressed in our scruffiest painting and decorating gear.

Policy Press staff hard at work redecorating

We’d offered to spend a day helping to redecorate the centrally shared space at the hostel and a counselling space. We hoped that between our painting, decorating, curtain and cushion making skills we could help to add a little bit to the sense of homeliness for residents and visitors.

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Ali Shaw getting ready to paint

Founder and Policy Press director Alison Shaw explained why she thought it was an important next step: “The aim of Policy Press has always been to try to improve social conditions with publications that will make a positive difference.”

“Many of the books and journals we publish are concerned with the social conditions and policies that both result in and respond to homelessness. We wanted to get closer to the frontline in engaging with the realities of being homeless and help the organisations that support people who find themselves in that situation.”

The finished product  - redecorated central areas

The finished product – redecorated central areas

St Mungo’s Broadway is a national charity that provides a bed and support to more than 2,500 people a night who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness. It also works to prevent homelessness, helping about 25,000 people a year.

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Curtains to make the room cosy on winters evenings

Marketing Executive Jessica Miles said: “It was a great opportunity to do something different as a team, as well as hopefully make a little bit of a difference to the guys staying at the St Mungo’s Crisis House in Bristol.”

Passionate advocates

Policy Press authors Professor Irene Hardill and Professor Susan Baines have researched and written extensively on the subject of volunteering. Their book ‘Enterprising Care?Unpaid voluntary action in the 21st century’ draws on a number of projects Sue and Irene undertook, including a micro-sociological study, which drew on lived experience, of undertaking voluntary work.

Talking to them, it is immediately obviously that they are passionate advocates for volunteering. They have watched with interest how the political debate has developed from New Labour’s emphasis on formal volunteering through to the Conservative-led coalition government’s ‘Big Society’ ideas.

Sue Baines says: “Volunteering activity is organic and hard to control. New Labour tried to bring in a lot of structure to help with that, and to be able to measure volunteering.”

Sue is cautious about the top-down approach as she feels that structured programmes can do more harm than good. Irene says the management of volunteers and the drive to push a contracts culture can be one of the negatives about volunteering. Sue says: “You come to help older people, let’s say, and suddenly it gets changed into something else, much more formal.”

“The unmet need is of course greater now than ever”

The practice of volunteering and how it is defined has changed. Recent debates for example have focused around employer’s use and abuse of volunteering in the workplace, otherwise known as ‘internships’.

Sue Baines

Sue Baines

Sue is concerned that the alignment of volunteering with work can reduce the richness it offers. She says: “I think that volunteering stands to be besmirched, or the perception of it, by the work agenda: the press has been full of accounts of ridiculous things like Scouts delivering public health.”

Both Sue and Irene believe there is a need to think differently about volunteering and to move away from the idea that volunteering is there to help in the delivery of public services. Instead they highlight that volunteering has an important role for fulfilling unmet needs outside of standard welfare service delivery. They point to the difference in approach towards volunteering in Wales which is much more focused around scrutinising authorities and organisations; or the development of the hospice movement in the UK. Initially set up by volunteers who spotted a gap in service provision for end-of-life care  and sought to fill it.

Author and academic Irene Hardill

Irene Hardill

Hardill says: “The unmet need is of course greater now than ever. New Labour put more emphasis on formal volunteering to map and measure what was going on in the country. But volunteering is also about being a good neighbour, about being involved in community groups. Really it’s just a messy form of any kind of unpaid work.”

Baines says: “I think it’s important to reemphasize the breadth and variety of volunteering – volunteers engage in the founding and running of organisations; people dip in and out with sports events etc., these days, but it’s all volunteering, it all counts.”

Hardill says: “What volunteering you do, how much, how often, why and what it means to you depends on where you are in life and on your personal circumstances. It can be an alternative to and supplement paid work; it makes you feel good, builds confidence and self-esteem.”

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Production Manager David Worth getting the job done

Policy Press staff involved in the day at St Mungo’s Broadway would certainly agree with the feel-good factor of getting involved in a hands on way with volunteering. Production Manager David Worth said: “I enjoyed the decorating day a lot and was amazed how so much can be achieved when everyone works together.”

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Art work to brighten up the walls

Commissioning Editor, Victoria Pittman said: “I was so impressed to see the difference we could make in just one day! I hadn’t realised we would be able to do so much, so it was great that we could.”

You can find out more about the work St Mungo’s Broadway do in supporting homeless people by checking out their website here. If you would like to get involved there are a whole host of ways you can do so this winter, from supporting campaigns, texting donations, sending Christmas cards or attending a carol concert in Oxford through to giving some of your time in volunteering for them. Why not check out their website for more details?

If you’d like to read Irene Hardill and Susan Baines book ‘Enterprising Care? Unpaid voluntary action in the 21st century’ it is available at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website here.

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