Paul Stewart blogs about his experiences volunteering on Shelter Scotland’s Digital Advice Team.
Shelter Scotland is an organisation which I have long admired, not just for its commitment to through providing help and advice to those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness, but also for its campaigning work on housing and homelessness issues. I became involved in December 2015 after responding to an advert for volunteer advisers with the Digital Advice Team. I was soon introduced to Donna Morris, Shelter Scotland’s Volunteer Development Manager, and joined the Digital Advice Team at Shelter Scotland’s Glasgow Hub, where I now volunteer six hours a week alongside with my full time job. Having studied politics at university (what feels like a long time ago now!), I wanted to contribute in an area where I could contribute this knowledge and interest for those who need it.
The Digital Advice Team provides initial contact between Shelter Scotland and website users through online chat, responding to requests for further information and general advice. I have received initial training on the chat service and most common problems raised by users of the service, before initially dealing with chats whilst supported and shadowed by a more experienced volunteer. Soon after I was allowed to ‘fly solo’ providing advice on the chat service, with support and advice always on hand from our digital advice co-ordinator, Yvonne, whose considerable knowledge of housing and homelessness matters helps the team be confident that we are providing the highest standard of advice and information to service users.
I am also undertaking the Scottish National Standards for Advisers training course, provided by Shelter Scotland, which provides an introduction to Housing Law, policy and common problems found in the housing sector. As well as helping ensure I have the relevant expertise and skills for this role, including learning about legislation which has been introduced to deal with housing issues over the years, the course also helps my own wider personal and professional development, and has been a fascinating introduction to the issues that Shelter Scotland faces on an ongoing basis.
To take an example, I have learned that being homeless is about far more than not having a roof over your head. It can also involve living temporarily with friends or family, sometimes as a result of eviction, family or relationship breakdown, or even living in inadequate accommodation can lead to a person being considered legally homeless. In some cases, those affected may not be aware of the help and advice they have available to them, including the rights of those considered to be homeless in the eyes of the law. We may advise such a client that they could make a homeless application to their local authority, and explain the duties that the local authority would have to them during the application process. Other queries we receive, for example financial issues like rent or mortgage arrears, repairs in private rented accommodation, or tenants’ rights and responsibilities – we may signpost clients to the information allowing them to take their own informed decisions.
Where a client’s situation is more serious and cannot be dealt with through the chat, we can also direct them to Shelter Scotland’s Housing Helpline, whose expert staff can take up more complex and pressing cases and provide in-depth advice, particularly when someone may be facing eviction proceedings or are requiring temporary accommodation. The breadth of topics handled by the team means that almost no two conversations are the same, requiring us to be able to think on our feet in order to respond by providing the relevant advice or information for the client, as well as constantly developing our own knowledge and expertise.
I feel quite proud to say that I’m part of a team providing an accessible service for those who require help and advice. Even in my relatively short time volunteering with Shelter Scotland, I have expanded my knowledge about housing matters, the voluntary sector in general, and about my own ability to adapt to the varying challenges that the role of an adviser brings. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend volunteering with Shelter Scotland, not only as a way of contributing to the fight against bad housing and social injustice, but also expanding your own experience and personal development.