Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Guideline guidance

February 01 2024
© Chris Bird © Chris Bird

Exploring why we need a Universal Homeless Charter and where charities go wrong with their volunteer guidelines. By Mat Amp

In a nutshell

Currently there is no universal charter for volunteers in the homeless sector. Mat argues one is needed, because:

  • A charter can prevent volunteers with lived experience of homelessness being exploited
  • Existing guidelines used by charities can be outdated or unhelpful to volunteers
  • Without a universal charter, charities can unintentionally develop their own particular type of bad practice.

As it stands, there is no single universal charter for volunteers in the homeless sector that applies worldwide or even just in the UK itself.
Instead, there are a number of organisations and associations in various countries and regions who have established their own bespoke guidelines, principles and charters to help oversee their work with volunteers.

For instance, the United Nations has published a document called The Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, which includes considerations for working with homeless populations and addressing poverty-related issues. Many nonprofit organisations, shelters, and local governments also have their own codes of conduct and volunteer charters to ensure volunteers provide effective and compassionate assistance.

Whilst there are common threads running through these guidelines, one of the major questions being explored in my work at the Groundswell homeless charity is: do we need a universal charter to protect volunteers with lived experience in the homeless sector from exploitation and abuse? And if our work at Groundswell shows that a universal charter would be a good idea, then what should that charter include?

Before investigating some of those arguments, it is worth looking at some of the guidelines that have been developed by a couple of charities to understand what a charter is exactly and what is right and wrong with the situation as it stands at the moment.

In my opinion, this will at the very least demonstrate the different and highly subjective approaches taken by the various charities out there when it comes to working with volunteers.  

Homeless Link’s 2018 publication, Managing Volunteers in Homeless Services, is a pretty comprehensive set of guidelines on how to recruit, utilise, engage and empower volunteers.

It points to the difference between volunteers with lived experience of homelessness and those without, who may be volunteering because it gives them vital experience or those people that just want to help and have the time and financial stability to do so. 

In addition to this, the guide talks about the need to map out what it is your organisation needs from your volunteers so that you don’t end up asking volunteers to cover the work of paid staff, as a source of cheap labour.

If volunteers do end up doing the work usually assigned to paid staff, then those staff should be employed to offer training to those volunteers. This way you are not replacing paid staff time with cheap volunteer labour. 

This is an example of the many different aspects of volunteering that are vulnerable to bad practice and negligence, and may lead to systemic abuse if organisations aren’t careful about adhering to a set of guidelines.

Without universal guidelines, organisations are more likely to develop their own particular type of bad practice, that in time may become part of their system. They can become unintentional and unnoticed failings that can in turn become part of a fixed system that is only ever scrutinised by a subjective and often dated set of guidelines.

For example, take the Volunteer Guidelines on the Whitechapel Mission’s website. I’m sure it was written with the best of intentions in terms of being kind and supportive and to keep volunteers and clients safe. But to me, the document sounds like something you’d get from your secondary school headmaster, with a tone that whips me up a picture of a sharp tutting tongue and a metronomic wagging finger.

It’s all about telling you to do stuff with little or no explanation as to the why of it. For example, it tells you to wear modest clothing and not identify yourself along with a load of other stuff that I think goes without saying. Reminding volunteers not to harass people or take drugs in front of them is reminding them not to do stuff you should never do anywhere. Putting this guideline front and centre in a document like this implies that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to behave in these nefarious sorts of ways.  

At other times it orders you to behave in a way that makes kindness contrived, robbing the volunteer of any bolstering of their self-esteem that might have occurred if they had been allowed to just be like this naturally. For example: “Volunteers are to engage in gracious and edifying conversation.” Apart from the fact that social awkwardness and a lack of vocabulary makes this very difficult for some people, ordering volunteers to do it in this way robs them of the rewards from any empathetic amplification that occurs when this happens naturally.

The edict continues: “Volunteers do not swear.”

Although I find people who find swearing offensive a bit extra, I do respect that some people find the world a less threatening place when people don’t use ‘bad’ language. But it’s the way that this request is made that in my opinion isn’t helpful. 

Perhaps the point can be demonstrated better by phrasing it in a way that would be far more productive and respectful. i.e. “As a volunteer, we please ask you not to swear as it offends some of our patrons. We hope this is okay with you.” By putting it this way, you not only ask the person if they will do something, but you also ask nicely and with respect. 

I accept that this is an extreme example of old-school charity in action, but extremes edify universal problems because it magnifies them. And in this case, it shows how this charity would have produced a far more engaging and productive set of guidelines if it had utilised a universal template.