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7th November 2011

Helping or hindering the homeless?

A look at the ethics behind volunteering

Last winter on a bitterly cold day in London, just settling down with a cup of tea, I was ambushed by my mother to do something good that evening. It’s always a bit awkward to say no to isn’t it?! Especially when I find out it’s helping at a homeless soup kitchen at my parents’ church.

Now I’m all for doing good but I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the homeless. It has been drilled into me by my nanny’s insistence, at the top of her voice, not to give that man on the tube anything, as he will only spend it on booze and fags.

Not wanting to seem cold-hearted I reluctantly agree to help out and at 5pm that evening find myself being shuffled in to prepare before our “customers” arrive.

My brother (damn him) quickly snapped up the kitchen job with all the elderly ladies, and endless food treats, whilst I was assigned to “mingle”.

Damn. I racked my social skills for any seasonal conversation starter “Isn’t the weather terrible?” no…. “What are you doing for Christmas?”, “Started your Christmas shopping yet?” Some how my standard chat didn’t quite seem appropriate. So I sat back and let them take the lead, and that they certainly did:  “What do you think about the architectural history of the church?” erm…

So I don’t know how I felt as I left the Church, had I done any good by just sitting and awkwardly trying to make conversation, or was it just another anecdote to recount to my friends about that one time I helped the homeless? I’m still unsure. In fact I’m unsure about volunteering in general, how much it helps others, or is it more popular for the self-gratification of volunteer?

One thing is for sure by getting involved in the project it tore down my stereotype of the homeless and layabout drunks and perhaps that is as important as anything in order to change public prejudices.

So whilst my verdict is still out on the impact of volunteering, I do know that if I was shivering in the December cold I would be pretty appreciative of the concept.

It’s a great opportunity to spend the night in the warmth, enjoy some hot food, oh, and get some much needed charge for your iPad as one man did. Only in Chelsea.

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