Want to volunteer at a homeless shelter?

Here are some things that may help you to decide

Truro Daily News webcomments@ngnews.ca
Published on February 15, 2013

By Gary Saunders


Twice in recent weeks a local pastor has appealed in the Truro Daily News for volunteers to staff Truro's three church-run Out of The Cold (OTC) homeless shelters.

Last year the three churches – Immanuel Baptist, First United and St Andrew's – divvied up the program so one was always open. Now one of them has had to close its shelter.

This leaves two churches to cover seven nights. They can’t. There’s only enough volunteers for four nights. The other three nights several homeless people must sleep outdoors.

Given our recent minus 20C temperatures, those men and women risk hypothermia, frostbite – even death.

Luckily, one church has offered to cover the other three nights if volunteers can be found.  The thing is, even for a few guests you need at least one male and one female on duty, plus backup people in case of sickness, etc.  

In other words, a reliable pool of winter volunteers.

Normally, church members have provided that, as they should. But busy people can burn out. And homelessness isn’t just a church  issue. Churches need  the wider community’s support. Ideally, Truro needs a proper facility – the Acadian Lines bus station? But that’s another story.  

Why so few volunteers for other good causes and so few this one? Social stigma? A feeling the homeless deserve their hard lot?

But surely no sane person risks frostbite and worse if they can help it! Then what drives them to that extremity?

Lots of things. Family breakup, losing a job, illness, depression, addiction, mental illness, teenage rebellion. That’s life. But some of us, less lucky perhaps, crack under the strain. It could be you or me.

So I asked myself what if would-be OTC volunteers simply know too little about the program to decide? Which led to the question what would the average potential volunteer want or need to know? What concerns – training, hazards, hours – might she or he have?

So I did some research. Here’s what I learned.   

* Yes, there’s an info session and follow-up support. There’s a church help-line in case of trouble and  local police are ready to respond.

* No, you don’t need First Aid – though it’s an asset. And  you won’t be working alone. Two women and two men is the normal quota.   

• Hours? You don’t need to sign up for more than one shift a week – less if you like.

• And you won’t have to stay up all night. OTC normally runs two shifts: 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. and 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. You pick what suits you.

* Security? Accommodations are first-come, first-served. Outer doors are normally kept locked. Mom-and-child arrivals are provided free local lodging elsewhere, usually at a local motel. Unruly or drunken arrivals are politely turned away,  or town police are called.   

* The early shift signs guests in, jots down arrival times, shows them the separate male and female sleeping quarters, and sets newcomers at ease. To allay guests’ fears of losing valuables, some churches collect and identify them for secure overnight storage, then  return them on departure.

* Once guests are settled for the evening – most retire well before 10 p.m. and sleep all night – dishes are washed (or put in the washer) and garbage is put away, etc.

*  Next morning the late shift is responsible for wakeup calls, providing a simple breakfast and seeing guests off.  Both shifts are expected to provide hot or cold drinks and snacks as needed from church supplies. The midnight crew is also expected to prepare and distribute day snack packs. However, cash is never given.

* Sometimes a morning drive is needed somewhere. For instance, last year Bob (not his real name) needed to go each morning to outpatients to have dressings changed on his frost-bitten toes. A church member obliged. Bob also received warm winter footwear. Volunteers may provide drives but it isn’t a requirement. Some churches keep a driver on call.

* Once all guests are gone their bedding is checked, bagged and delivered for laundering. Last year a local motel laundered it for free.

That’s about it. Really it’s not that hard. Rowdy guests are rare. They’re too grateful and tired to make a fuss. The greatest challenge after midnight is to stay awake and alert. Reading helps. So does watching TV or DVDs – at low volume. Conversation, coffee and stretch breaks work best.

On the other hand, where else can one find like-minded, sober people willing to chat till all hours? To break bread with hard-up people and hear their real-life stories?

 Jesus famously said, “The poor you have always with you.” But, born poor himself, he never said to ignore them.

If you are interested in helping out, contact Corey Somers at Immanuel Baptist church or Tillie Armstrong at First United. Interested volunteers should call the church offices during the day.


Clifton resident Gary Saunders, a timber cruiser in his youth, often slept outdoors in cold and wind and wet, but always in a tent, never in a cardboard box.