Methods: Participants were recruited from public spaces (e.g., outside parks, subways stations, bus stations, etc.) and then screened for study eligibility. People who had spent at least 8 out the past 14 nights on the streets, and did not spend any of the 14 nights in a shelter or in their own room/apartment/home, were eligible for the study. After completing an informed consent process, participants were interviewed by the Principal Investigator or the graduate-level Research Assistant. Interviewers used a semi-structured interview that queried whether participants currently volunteer their time, where they volunteer, how much time they spend volunteering, what type of volunteer work they do, and their motivations for volunteering. For data analysis, a constant comparative analysis methodological approach was used (Glaser & Straus, 1967). A team of graduate students reviewed the transcripts independently, then the Principal Investigator facilitated a discussion that generated near-consensus around several concepts, then the team reviewed the transcripts again, and then findings were discussed until consensus was reached.
Results: Twenty-two percent of the sample reported currently engaging in volunteer work, and many more participants reported engaging in volunteer work in the past. Participants reported volunteering through faith organizations (e.g., church), at a place where they currently receive homeless services (e.g., soup kitchen), at other social services agencies (e.g., elder care facilities), and completing random acts of kindness (e.g., pushing a person in a wheelchair several blocks when the person was in distress). A small number of participants reported having a regular schedule of volunteer work; it was more common for participants to volunteer on an as-needed/as-available basis. Participants volunteered for a variety of reasons: to receive clothing or food, to take their mind off personal struggles, to give back to a place that helped them, or because it was God’s will. After completing the interview, several participants stated that the interview had prompted them to want to volunteer.
Conclusions and Implications: A substantial proportion of the people in this sample – who were experiencing homelessness and sleeping on the streets – reported current volunteer work. Many others had volunteered in the past. And still others expressed the desire to volunteer presently. In this time of resource-deprived social service systems, there is an opportunity to match client talents, abilities, and desires with other people’s needs. An example of this is one participant who did not have any family and felt lonely. He volunteered at an elder care facility, where many clients were lonely. This match helped him feel connected and useful.