Monday, October 5, 2009

Volunteering for the Homeless

Well, I'm back. I volunteered for the first time with Homeless Connect, Edmonton. This event is sponsored by Homeward Trust, Edmonton, and follows the example of the first Homeless Connect in San Francisco. The idea is to put all the sorts of resources that homeless and the street poor need in one place, like a large trade fair, and let these people know where to come. Connect.

A large army of volunteers work to make the experience as comfortable as possible. There are greeters at the door, and there are guides to personally escort the homeless to the services they are interested in.

In my pursuit of excellent examples of intake experience, I was curious what this event would be like. As a volunteer, I found the experience revelatory and profoundly satisfying. The event has no problem attracting volunteers. The place was swarming with blue volunteer t-shirts.

Revelatory because I had to get over my reservation to approach people I usually avoid. For their sake, I welcomed, directed, brought coffee, reassured, and gave eye contact and a smile. The experience was satisfying because I made the leap to humanity, and I felt cleaner for it. I had signed up for just half the day and I had a very, very hard time saying goodbye.

Not to say that there were no jarring notes. These are people living on the edge. Some have problems that make it difficult to relate in a social situation. The paranoids wanted to know what the catch was. We had a few rebel street kids there to goof and stir up trouble if they could. But the vast majority are so grateful for the leg up.

There were a few images that will haunt my memory, demonstrating how close to the edge some of these people are living. For sake of their privacy, I won't record all I saw.

I noticed a few opportunities for improvement, but we also got smarter as the morning went on. A coffee and muffin station was offered to those in line this year, and it quickly became clear that it was smarter to bring the treats to them. This led also to some mess near the doors, which kept the cleaning staff busy full time. I could tell that this task did not thrill the Shaw staff.

I did see a chance to even out the intake process. This is the biggest delay in getting the homeless hooked up with the services they are so patiently waiting for. Intake workers filled out a double sided questionnaire for every applicant. Some of the paranoids in my line questioned why they were being asked for so much information. A few were certain that the information was being kept on a big government server somewhere. It speaks to their great need that they persisted in spite of their fears.

Now, I understand an administrator's desire for more information on the homeless. The more you know about the makeup of those you are trying to help, the better you can focus your efforts. However, the organizers now have detailed information from three events like this. Perhaps it is time to put the forms down.

Taking examples from the big retailers (Wal-Mart, E-Bay, Amazon), don't get between the customer and the service. Also, take care with the questions that are asked. The questions, though anonymous, are highly personal, and could evoke a deep emotional response. Are we ready to deal with all that - forcing these people to face how dire their situation really is?

What is the minimum you need to know? Perhaps the same amount of detail could be provided by having a couple of head counters (one for male, one for female) at the door with clickers, and providing the arm bands like you do now to prevent re-counting. (By the way, the form allowed for male, female, and transgender). Roving surveyors could ask for detailed information from, say, one in a hundred. And perhaps the event could learn a few things from improvement tools like Kaizen, which teaches that the best way to get to the source of the problem is through direct observation, or gemba.

The next even is in May and if I can make it, I will be there.