When Mack and I realized that we would be back from DC in time to volunteer for the spring Homeless Connect, we both didn’t hesitate to sign on. Well, I did, briefly, only because the time was not ideal – we’d arrive back in Edmonton late on Saturday, which would mean we’d have six hours of sleep at best before a day of service.
We didn’t volunteer for the first Homeless Connect in Edmonton that took place back in October 2008, but the concept of a one-stop service location for the city’s underprivileged was an intriguing one, and both of us were eager to see how the day would unfold.
We caught the bus bright and early on Sunday morning to the Shaw Conference Centre, where an 8am volunteer rally was meant to energize us for the day. Through the doors of the hall, Mack and I received our bright blue t-shirts (neon orange shirts marked team leaders), and had coffee while we waited for the proceedings to start.
Almost ready for the day
Due to technical difficulties, the proceedings didn’t start until at least 8:30. While it wasn’t as high-energy as it was advertised to be, outside of MLA David Xiao’s canned and awkward address to the crowd, I appreciated the intent of welcoming and ensuring volunteers understood that their time and assistance was valued.
After the welcome, we were told that volunteers would self-select their teams for the day. With several hundred volunteers, this seemed like a very chaotic way to start the event. I chose to be on registration duty, and along with about 60 people, followed the team lead for a brief orientation.
And was it ever brief – though we were all treated as capable individuals, I wished something more formal could have been put into place. The five minute spiel we received was much too ad hoc, and while the form and the procedure didn’t seem complicated, compared to the comprehensive overview we were provided before participating in the Homeless Count, I was left feeling a tad unprepared for the task at hand.
We were told to take the time we had before the doors opened at 10am to explore the hall and familiarize ourselves with the services available. I have to commend Homeward Trust for coordinating nearly 60 service providers for this second event – all volunteering their time and services that day – from haircuts, dental services and immunization to elder counselling, clothing distribution and identification provision, it was inspiring to see so many organizations come together to serve the homeless community.
Elder counselling area
Mack’s volunteer area for the day – free long distance phone calling and internet
At 10am, we were greeted to a rush of people, and were kept busy for a while. The registration form captured basic demographic information that would allow the organizers to ensure the services provided were appropriate, and was fairly quick to run through with individuals. After I was finished with the form, I provided each person with a care package, containing a hat, shirt and personal care items, before linking them with a guide who would orient them to the hall and lead them to the service they wanted to take advantage of first.
Though people did trickle in the rest of the day, it wasn’t too busy after the initial crowd. The team leaders were really great in coming by to let us know that we should take our lunch break (and any other breaks we needed to), and we were able to have a hot meal alongside clients. I was also able to chat quite a bit with my registration desk partner – he said that now that he and his wife were empty nesters, they had more time to volunteer. It was his first time being involved with an event like this, and he said it really opened his eyes – most of the people he had interviewed did not fit his previous image of “homelessness”.
I met many people that day – a father who was struggling to get his life back in order so his daughter could return to his care, a woman who had just moved into a new apartment that weekend, with the help of a support agency, and a mother who was interested in getting her son a much-needed haircut. It was amazing how just sitting down with someone for a few minutes provided so much perspective on things.
We were told that this event was much more organized than the first, but that numbers were likely down for a variety of reasons (weather, experience of long lines at the last event). I think Homeless Connect 3 will only improve on efficiency, and based on this experience, I think I will be volunteering again on October 4.