Debbie's story: from volunteer to employee

Debbie's story: from volunteer to employee

Debbie started volunteering with Shelter in March 2020, just before the country went into lockdown. She then went on to start work with us as a GROW Trainee in June 2022. She has an incredibly varied and important role at Shelter building on her lived experience of homelessness. ‘Basically, you name it, in a Shelter hub, I’m involved in it’, she says.

As part of her role as a GROW trainee, Debbie works alongside the #HealthNow project. This is a partnership between Shelter and Groundswell – a charity that works with people with experience of homelessness, offering opportunities to contribute to society and create solutions out of homelessness. In partnership with Shelter and Crisis, they deliver a Homeless Health Peer Advocacy Service to communities in all major cities. All volunteers involved in the project have been homeless at some point. ‘They are the best sort of volunteers for this type of service,’ says Debbie.

The project helps anyone who is homeless or threatened with homelessness with their medical needs.

‘When you are homeless, health is often the last thing you think about.’

Debbie helped Groundswell with some recently published peer-led research on how being homeless affects mental health called, Knowing where to turn: access to mental health support whilst experiencing homelessness. ‘Because they know you’ve been homeless as well, we get far more honest and open answers,’ says Debbie.

The research confirmed that being homeless has an adverse effect on mental health and Debbie knows the cycle of events well through her own experience.

‘You’re homeless so you start drinking alcohol, which makes you feel worse, and your mental health gets worse, so you start drinking more alcohol. Because you smell of alcohol, you can’t get into various services that will help your mental health. You end up going down and down and down.’

Debbie says that applying for and getting the GROW Trainee role, with lots of support from Shelter colleagues, is her greatest personal achievement.

Debbie is currently learning more about housing law, how it relates to homelessness, and what is legally meant to happen when you present as homeless. ‘I know how it works in reality but I’ve never known what is supposed to happen.

‘I always knew I wanted to work somewhere I could help people that had been through similar experiences to me. This is the first time I can say I’ve got a meaningful job that is helping people.’

However, she believes more needs to be done to help tackle the housing emergency, including lower rents in the private sector and more social housing, as well as better quality housing in general.

‘More social housing is a must. The number of people on the waiting list…and they just can’t get anywhere because not enough new social housing is being built.’

There are so many great volunteering opportunities with Shelter, whatever you do, you know you’re making a difference.’

Find out more about how to volunteer with us, or read our other blog posts on volunteer activity.