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7th November 2011

Helping the homeless

Disabled Student’s Officer, Maggie Suissa talks about her experiences as a volunteer

St Mungo’s is a homeless persons charity based in London and the South East. The charity works towards combating the rise in homelessness and rehabilitating clients found on the streets, helping them to reintegrate with society and achieve independent living.

During the summer I volunteered at one of their initiatives, Bricks and Mortar, an education programme where the clients learn skills in construction work and graduate with an NVQ qualification.

The programme is set out in progressive stages, and the client must qualify to pass each stage. I volunteered for the day as an interviewer that would permit or restrict the client to reach the next stage.

As a volunteer, it’s always tricky knowing the line between being an extra pair of hands, and actually asserting your opinions in a contributory way. I’m not a shy person, but after I asked my first question, I felt myself blush. The client did not understand what I was asking, and I realised that neither did I.

Fortunately, like many of the clients, he began to talk about his life experiences, giving me the time to rephrase. I think it was at this point I realised, that in this particular field, there are no set rules. It was up to me to decide how best to relate to a client.

The entire experience was so surreal; there I was in this little room with two others, who were thankfully both well-trained workers in St Mungo’s, interviewing people who had experienced far more than I could imagine. I watched all four clients in their respective interviews subconsciously show me their thoughts through their body language.

There was one client I struggled with in particular, as when I asked him if he was managing any drugs or alcohol, he said he was not. I knew he was lying, and all I could think was how we were doing our best to be transparent with them, why couldn’t he meet us halfway?

I had to remember the very basic fact that many of the clients who are managing do not themselves see this as abnormal or wrong. It was one of those awkward moments where you realise that you have no idea about the guy your standing next to and their life experiences.

If I could, I would love to do it again. It’s not about that Samaritan feeling or ‘doing your bit’, but it’s about reminding yourself that you have a responsibility to ensure that no man is left to the mercy of the weather. The truth is, you never know when it could happen to you.

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