Becky Czarnecki was in college when a friend invited her to go to a soup kitchen with a campus ministry group to serve food to people experiencing homelessness. As it turned out, there were actually too many volunteers that day and the kitchen was too crowded, so Becky sat and just talked to people.
And then she kept going back.
She started to talk to one man in particular every week — conversing with him and the other people at the soup kitchen felt like it was what she was meant to do, she says. That encounter led her to post-graduate service and a job at a center for the homeless.
If you’re interested in volunteering your time and energy to serve people who are homeless, there are a lot of ways to help. Hearing some stories from volunteers who are familiar with this service setting might help you know what to expect and figure out how to get connected.
It’s about being present
Inspired by the Catholic Worker movement founded by Servant of God Dorothy Day, Becky says she tries to “love God by loving other people on the margins.” For her, it all started with that invitation to go to the soup kitchen, and the conversation that followed.
People often want to volunteer their time and talent, but don’t know what to do at a soup kitchen or how to offer their time at a center for the homeless. “You don’t have to know what to say or do or how to fix things,” Becky says. “Just be present to someone. Sit and have coffee.” She has found that coffee is a great equalizer that allows people to have a conversation and connect. She encourages volunteers to find topics to connect over, such as a local sports team, a favorite food, or family stories. “Be willing to be present and listen,” she continues. “If they don’t want to talk, leave them alone. Don’t be intimidated.”
Becky’s advice for encounters with men and women experiencing homelessness is to look them in the eye: “If you’re in a car, it’s tough to strike up a conversation. But on the street, smile and look them in the eye and treat them with respect like you would with a coworker in the hallway.” She acknowledges that people often wonder whether they should give money to people on the street, but she cites a friend who told her “they’ll be judged for what they spend it on, not me.”
It’s okay to be nervous
Similarly, Siobhan Cooney was a student at an inner-city all-girls high school in Baltimore when she started asking her mom questions about the people living on the street whom they drove past every day on the way to school. She spoke with a nun at her school who told her about her own outreach work and soon, Siobhan started doing this service with her.
Siobhan’s first experience volunteering involved making meals and bagging lunches with other students and faculty at school. Then, they drove to the church affiliated with the mission and handed out the bags. “I was very nervous the first time, but I trusted the adults I was with,” Siobhan says.
She recalls that the nun who had answered her first questions sensed her nervousness and said, “Siobhan, they’re people too.” That reminder put Siobhan at ease and things began to click with her. “It was very foundational for me in wanting to understand the issues of homelessness,” she explains.
As a college student, Siobhan was on a team that addressed homelessness in Philadelphia. The case workers chose 20 men who lived at a center for the winter. At every dinner shift Siobhan served, she was able to build a relationship with those people. She listened to their stories. “It was so interesting,” she remembers. “I met someone with a law degree, an artist… and created community with people.” She says a powerful lesson was that knowing someone’s name and remembering it is the first step to knowing that person’s story and building a relationship.
For Becky and her family, her experiences connecting with the homeless has given her the desire to live more simply. It’s important, she realizes, to spend time with people of a variety of backgrounds, especially for her kids.
Spending time with people living on the streets has softened her heart, she says. As a graduate student, Becky would continue to see one woman in particular on the streets and at the service center. Since then, they have grown to know and respect each other. “There’s something so special about knowing someone for a long time, like a friend — knowing their story and their heart. There’s value in being consistent in your ministry because you can love them, even if you can’t help them in a practical way,” Becky offers.
See what you can offer
If you’re thinking about volunteering at a soup kitchen or center for the homeless, Becky suggests thinking about what you can and want to do: cook meals, have a conversation with people, etc. Then she recommends calling local organizations and asking what they need. And if you’re not sure what you can provide, remember that you can always simply offer a listening ear.
Siobhan echoes Becky’s advice. “Be confident,” she urges. “Contact something like Catholic Charities that can point you in the right direction and start by serving a meal. Find someone there who you can ask your questions. They want you there.”