For me, the hands down best part of volunteering at Southampton City Mission, is coming into contact with a hugely eclectic mix of people. You never know who’s going to walk through the door and what you might end up talking to them about.
The first year I worked with people experiencing homelessness at Crisis Christmas, I realised that pretty much everything I thought I knew about ‘the homeless’ was a myth. I had a lot of preconceived notions in my head (thanks in part to skewed portrayals in the media) that turned out to be quite far off the mark. Food bank clients also lend themselves to certain stereotypes. Not everyone who uses food banks is chavvy or homeless or uneducated or unemployed. This fact really hit home this afternoon.
When talking to food bank clients, the volunteers naturally ask questions to show interest, make the clients feel comfortable, and simply to find out a bit more about them in case we can do anything else to help. Often the clients are curious about us, though. Today I’d gone over to a well-dressed Asian man with his food parcel, and initiated a conversation as I usually do. We spoke a little and then he asked me how long I’d been volunteering and what I did the rest of the time. When I explained I work at Southampton University, his face lit up. It turned out that he used to work in the Student Centre for years and spoke about working on the different campuses, until he was made redundant.
Usually when I’ve seen a client off, I feel a glow of satisfaction at having sent them home with some food, after a good chat and a bit of a laugh. Some of the clients really make my day and I hope by chatting to them they go away feeling cheerful, and as if somebody does care. For the first time today, as I said goodbye to the Asian gentleman, I felt a deep sense of sadness. At one time, this man would have been one of my colleagues. I might have spoken to him, passed him in a hallway, queued behind him for my lunch.
What many people don’t realise is all it takes is a series of unfortunate circumstances and pretty much anyone can find themselves without a roof over their head or in need of a food bank. I’m employed by the University on a zero hour contract (shocking, but more common than you’d think), for example. I could easily find myself with no hours… I’d struggle to find another job that paid as well… I have limited savings and the cost of living continues to rise… It doesn’t take much to find yourself in debt, for things to spiral out of control, for a load of little events to build up and get out of hand.
The realisation that homelessness and food poverty can be experienced by just about anyone – and I’ve heard of a barrister being on the street, by the way – is extremely sobering. More people need to recognise the reality that poverty isn’t a situation you end up in just because you’re lazy, stupid, bad with money or from a certain social background. You never know what life can throw at you and there’s a certain arrogant complacency to believing something like losing your home could never happen to you.
The next time you see somebody begging in a doorway, selling the Big Issue on the street or busking on the tube, please don’t immediately dismiss them as losers and wasters. You have no idea how they came to be there.