Adapted from a talk given to Just Love at Oxford University, 20/2/23
When I was a student in Hull in the early 1990s, I volunteered every week at a drop in centre for ‘homeless and rootless’ people called Dock House. It was organised through the student-run community action group, HUSSO, based in the Student Union (pictured above).
In those days, the centre was pretty rough and there was often a fair bit of drama on each shift. When ‘the students’ arrived, the paid staff used to give us the keys and go home! The emergency procedure if anything kicked off was short and sweet: ‘Lock yourselves in the kitchen and phone 999’. It was not very reassuring.
Looking back I am not sure how much we helped anyone, but I know how much it taught me. As a southern, middle-class student I felt way out of my comfort zone, but it opened my eyes to poverty, addiction and the complexities of homelessness. I was studying social work but I learnt far more in such places than I did on campus.
I doubt there are many places where this kind of arrangement still happens. The tragic murder of Jonathan Newby, working alone in a hostel run by the Oxford Cyrenians in 1993 had a big impact on how risks were managed.
These changes are undoubtedly positive as safety must be priority. But it can mean that its harder for students to be involved in local work than it used to be. Terms can be almost over by the time people receive training and complete necessary checks.
But with the challenges in mind, these are my suggestions for what students can do about homelessness:
1.Contribute to what is already going on
As students are often only around for part of the year, its best that they partner with an existing service to supplement and support what they are doing.
This will require creativity and strong links between student groups and local charities which can be handed over year on year so the connection is not lost.
Could students help with a certain aspect of a centre’s weekly programme? Could they accompany outreach workers? Could they run a regular quiz night within a hostel or centre? Could they support a local church’s food service?
I think this kind of volunteering is much more effective and impactful than when students venture out onto the streets by themselves to give out food or drinks.
2. Learn through authentic experience
In keeping with their primary focus, the best thing a student can do is to learn about the realities of poverty and homelessness in authentic ways.
A good training session at the start of term led by someone with either professional or lived experience of homelessness would teach a student group a huge amount about the realities in their city.
And volunteering with existing services can deepen understanding about the good, the bad and the ugly of the system and the challenges of solving complex problems. Authentic experiences take you deeper than just sympathy and ‘poverty tourism’.
3. Deepen your beliefs
Students often hold strident religious or political views which have things to say about poverty and social injustice. Volunteering can root these beliefs in reality.
My practical experiences as a student influenced my politics because I got to know real people whose life chances were vastly different to my own. It made me angry about poverty and more committed to doing something about it. It put into perspective the shrill theoretical arguments in tutorials and within the Student Union.
On the faith side, I struggled with the conservative emphasis of the Christian Union because at that time social justice was not on their agenda. Volunteering felt like an authentic way of putting my faith into action. It felt more real, authentic and deep than the evangelistic activities organised on campus.
4. Reject comfortable echo chambers
Like many other environments, student culture is susceptible to group-think and herd mentality which creates comfortable echo-chambers. Generally, these are liberal/left views which easily default to ‘blaming the system’.
Getting out into ‘the real world’ means engaging with more complex realities. Homelessness brings together both political failure and personal tragedy, a fusion of social injustice and personal problems that individuals face. Yes, ‘the system’ does need to change but effective frontline work always an element of challenge to individuals too (see If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you).
5. Use your influence
Volunteering as a student has directly affected my life ever since. It led to paid jobs, positions of leadership and being a government adviser on rough sleeping.
What you learn and experience now will affect what you do in the future. And many students (especially at a university like this) will go onto positions where you have significant influence.
Choose to use your time well and get involved in issues that matter. Make sure your learning never becomes purely academic. You are at a ‘world-class’ university: think about world-class ways of helping people in need.
And go on to use your influence well. Put your beliefs to work and make a difference in a world dying for transformation.
Just Love: equipping students to pursue justice with their whole lives
4 thoughts on “What can students actually do about homelessness?”
Jon, this is a really helpful set of principles to follow for most social engagement. In my own work with students (not Christian) seeking to work justly in their schools and communities in east London, there is a lot of traction here. Thank you. Huw
thanks Huw – that’s true – but this did give me the opportunity to crow-bar in some student anecdotes! Hope you are well and thanks for your encouragement!
Yes, spot on. The classic example in Cambridge is the well meaning students going out with food on a Thursday afternoon which left the long standing Thursday early evening provision with no one to feed.
thanks Gav. Yes, this sort of thing is all too common. I think it is rooted in a well-meaning but naïve idea that ‘our intervention’ is unique and distinct. At its worst I have it lead to ‘soup wars’ with rival groups arguing about who was here first. Its like compassion turf wars….