Homelessness in the UK and How You Can Help

You can’t go about your day in London without passing a homeless person and probably a lot more than one. It absolutely breaks my heart and with the weather getting colder and colder, it’s more important than ever to something about it. I have been wanting to volunteer with an organisation that looks after homeless people for months but it was the kinds acts of a few friends that finally spurred me into action. I have spent the evening contacting charities and hope to have a regular volunteer position in the next few days. For anyone that wants to join me, I will post details as soon as I have them.

The most sickening and upsetting part about it is the amount of people who walk past, seemingly unaffected, and go about their day. Homeless people are treated like a scourge, and ignored. Noone wants them there, they make us feel bad. They make us feel guilty.

I think a lot of people try to justify ignoring homeless people by relying on outdated preconceived ideas about how people end up on the street. They put it down to personal failure, drug addiction, or even personal choice but the real reasons people become homeless are much more complex. In fact, a relationship breakdown is one of the main causes of homelessness. Domestic violence, unemployment, mental health issues, sexual or physical abuse, lack of affordable housing, lack of support and crippling debts are all also high in the list.

In recent years, the success of the Facebook page, Humans of New York has done a great job of reminding us that homeless people are people too. They are just like you and I. Humans of New York, in case you are not familiar, is a photo project. People from all walks of life are photographed and their pictures accompanied by a quote or anecdote. Some are funny, some are extremely sad, some are real eye-openers and all of them are real stories about real people. The people behind HONY do a beautiful job of capturing all facets of life and many more “Humans of …” pages are popping up all over the net.

This graffitti artist in LA draws homeless people’s dream homes.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/16/graffiti-artist-homeless-dreams-skid-robot-photos_n_5991808.html

Homelessness in the UK

The most recent figure I could find is that on any given night in the UK, about 2,414 people are sleeping rough. And numbers are increasing. This figure doesn’t include anyone sleeping in shelters or with family or friends. This is the number of people out in streets. However, it is very difficult to calculate the actual number of people without a home and research suggests up to 62% of homeless people are “hidden” and will not show up in official figures.

There are an estimated 400000 “hidden homeless” in London.

Homeless Veterans

Its enrages me to think that such a huge number of people sleeping rough are ex-military. People who have risked their lives for their country are disregarded when they get home. Many suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and other health issues caused by their time in service and many more have problems with drugs and alcohol. It is estimated that up to 100 veterans sleep rough every night in London. What does that say bout our society?

How you can help

Not everyone has the time to volunteer, but you can always do something small to help. Buy someone sleeping rough a coffee, tea or even some hot soup. Donate spare blankets, sleeping bags and flasks. Donate shoes and socks, jackets and warm clothes. No one should be sleeping rough, especially in this weather.

If you DO have time to volunteer here are some great organisations you can contact and see what you can do in your area;

St Mungos; http://www.mungosbroadway.org.uk/how_you_can_help/volunteer

Shelter; http://england.shelter.org.uk/get_involved/volunteer

Shelter from the Storm; http://www.sfts.org.uk/volunteer/

Streets of London ; http://www.streetsoflondon.org.uk/about-homelessness

Crisis ; http://www.crisis.org.uk/pages/volunteer.html

Chorlton Mad Dogs; these guys are in Manchester. They collect donated food and cook up hot meals and deliver them to homeless people all around the city. You can follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Anyone could end up on the streets. Some of us are lucky enough to have friends and family that are in a position to support us when we fall on hard times and the means to pick ourselves back up again. I have been fortunate enough to get a good education which makes me more employable and makes job application forms more manageable. I speak fluent English. I have appropriate interview clothes and skills. I didn’t do a single thing to earn these privileges but benefit from the every day.

A poll of 2,000 UK adults we commissioned in December 2013, found that 32% of people have experienced homelessness (including sofa surfing and staying with friends) or know someone who has experienced homelessness. 14% had experienced it themselves, 20% knew someone else who had experienced it, 2% said they had both experienced it and knew others who had. –  (homeless.org.uk)

Be thankful for what you have and help out those less fortunate than you whenever you can.

Harmony Home Taiwan: 2014 Secret Santa Toy Drive

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I first heard about Harmony Home a few years ago on a Taiwan expat forum, Forumosa. I had been looking for somewhere to volunteer and it sounded perfect. Harmony Home has become very dear to my heart and I have such respect and admiration for the staff that work tirelessly to run the centre and to care for the kids.

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It all began in 1986…

 when Nicole Yang welcomed her friend, the renowned Taiwanese theater artist, Tian Chi-yuan to her home with her two children.  He had nowhere else to go because he was HIV positive. It was the time when there was no proper medical treatment available and there was insufficient understanding of the disease. The rapid increase of AIDS patients has caused negative responses in the society. This further induced withdrawal of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA) out of fear of being discriminated. Being aware of this sad situation, Nicole opened up her home to PLHA to provide them with a secure place to live in. Out of compassion, she established Harmony Home with the hope of fully reintegrating them to the society.
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As is usually the case, it took a couple of e-mails to get a reply but when I did, it was friendly and enthusiastic and I couldn’t wait to get involved. My first visit was a little chaotic, there were kids running around everywhere, my Chinese was almost non-existent and everyone looked far too busy to be bothered with me. It took a few visits to get used to the way things are done but every time I came the kids would jump up and come to hug me. I taught English there with two friends, one person with all those kids was just not enough!! They have a classroom upstairs with lots of arts and crafts supplies. After a few months, I decided to organize some outings for the kids. It would be a nice break for the nannies and great for the kids to get out and let off some steam! They are often cooped up inside and end up fighting over toys and the TV. Our first outing was a hike in Xin Yi and the kids absolutely loved it! A group of friends came, with their dogs and toddlers in tow and everyone had a great afternoon.

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After that, we started going to the park regularly. The kids had the freedom to run around and play with adult supervision. Some of the kids were curious about the volunteers, others were too shy but either way, they were out and about and getting fresh air and exercise. One particular Saturday, we had a lot of dogs with us and the kids loved them! They were fascinated and took turns walking them and feeding them snacks. For some of the kids, it was their first experience with a pet because they have grown up in the centre. It was so lovely to see!

My favourite outing, however, had to be the trip we took to the public swimming pool. It was in the middle of a melting summer and the park was just a bit too hot. The kids were exhausted and hiding under the slide for shade so we took them to the outdoor pool instead. The LOVED it! For a lot of the little kids, it was their first time swimming and they had so much fun.

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I have continued to be involved with Harmony Home as a fundraiser and coordinator even though I can’t go and see the kids any more and will keep doing so for as long as I can. Recently, Harmony Home have been on the receiving end of a horrible campaign to remove them from their centre on Xin Yi due to neighbours complaining and it is really heartbreaking to hear about it all. They really need support this year and thanks to my amazing friends and the Harmony Home volunteer network I think 2014 is going to end of a very positive note.

Throughout my time volunteering with Harmony Home we have had so many fun events, two VERY successful drag shows at Dalida, my Black and White birthday, two Halloween parties, Pride parade and two Christmas parties. On top of that, we have had more clothes, books and appliances than I can count as well as tons of new volunteers and patrons. The generosity of the community in Taipei never fails to amaze me!

Our current event is the annual Secret Santa event which is in its third, and what looks to be biggest, year! Here’s the basic idea:

Dear volunteers and supporters,

I am sure you are all familiar with “secret santa” concept. You pick a number out of a hat and buy an anonymous gift for that person.
I’d like to do something similar this year for the kids at Harmony Home.
It will be all the kids name in the hat and you guys will be buying a gift for one of them.
I have a list of each of their names, ages and genders.
All you have to do is let me know you would like to take part and I will allocate you a kid. I’ll give you the info and then you go and buy them a gift, wrap it and put their name on it.
This way, each kid in the centre will get a lovely gift, chosen just for them.
I’d like to set a spending limit because everyone has different budgets and we don’t want some kids to receive really extravagant gifts. Rather, if you would like to give more or you have extra cash, I can allocate you more children!

Lets say, around 500NT.

This year, we have had such an overwhelming response that we have so many more donors than kids!!! For anyone who wants to get involved from now, you can make a donation via PayPal or credit card here or make a donation in kind (list here)and drop it off either at the centre 1F No.262-1, Jiaxing St., Xinyi District, Taipei City 110 or at the Christmas show Santaland Diaries.

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VSO: The Volunteer Experts

VSO-logo1I’ve been thinking about adding a section with details on specific organisations. I’m going to start off with an excellent volunteer group- VSO. If you are a skilled professional and you are looking for a way to use your skills and expertise where it is needed most, VSO are a fantastic organisation to get involved with.

A while back, I featured Sarah Naughton, a friend of mine who volunteered in Rwanda a few years ago, in the ” volunteer experiences” section and she described her volunteer placement with VSO. I was really impressed with how Sarah described VSO, and I’ve always been a big fan of how they operate. Here’s why:

– they are dedicated to long term solutions

-they send experts in their fields, to ensure that projects succed

-they ask volunteers to commit for at least 6 months, non of this ” gap year” two week business.

VSO is one of the world largest volunteer networks in the world, and like the UN, they want the best of the best for the projects. They advertise their placements the same way the advertise paid positions and if you want to apply, you will need to send you CV and a covering letter. It is competitive and they want the right person for each position. You must commit to at least 6 months, and fundraise for your trip. This is volunteering done right.

If you cannot commit to a longer term placement overseas, VSO encourage you to volunteer for them at home where you can campaign and fundraise. They have lots of ideas on the website to help get you started.

Do you know another great volunteer group that you would recommend for someone wanting to volunteer overseas? Please comment or e-mail me volunteerasia@hotmail.com

The Plight of Asian Elephants: Volunteering in Thailand

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My first overseas volunteering experience was in Thailand in 2008 at WFFT with Globalteer. It was the beginning of a year travelling and I couldn’t think of a better start to an amazing year. WFFT is an animal rescue centre about 6 hours outside Bangkok, in a beautiful rural area. The grounds themselves are picturesque. It was like living in the middle of the jungle. I was volunteering as part of the group looking after abused elephants in the elephant sanctuary part of the centre. During the day, the elephants stay in an enclosure and are fed and cleaned. They love to eat pineapples and watermelons. At night, they are walked out into the forest to graze and sleep. Every night they need to be left in a different spot in a bid to outsmart poachers who steal elephants for the tourist trade. In the morning, they are walked back to the centre. The morning and evening walks were amazing.

EVERY year without fail, I see people on my Facebook riding elephants on holiday in Thailand and other popular destinations and it breaks my heart. I often post articles to try and deter them but it mostly falls on deaf ears. (More of that willful ignorance I have mentioned before). Its seems people are more interested in having that quintessential elephant ride or tiger or monkey picture than learning about how the animals are treated. In reality, the animals are captured by killing the parents and stealing the young. To train them, they are starved and beaten into submission to break their spirits and once trained are kept in awful conditions.

Elephants in Thailand.  (from Globalteer.org)

There are only around 2,000-3,000 wild elephants in Thailand

When commercial logging was banned in Thailand there was no longer a demand for working elephants and their owners were forced to resort to different ways to make an income. Unfortunately, in many cases, this meant exploiting the elephants for the tourist industry.

The growth of urban areas in Thailand, has seen the elephants natural habitat become smaller and smaller. 

Many elephant owners took their animals to the big cities and today there are many elephants roaming the city streets at night, the dirty, hectic city environment is far from ideal for these elephants, which are by nature forest dwellers.

The noise and traffic causes them considerable stress, not to mention the dangers posed by the traffic.

Every year many elephants are killed or injured in traffic accidents. City elephants are frequently malnourished and do not consume anywhere near the amount of food that they should eat every day just to prevent excretion on the streets.

In the daytime the city elephants are kept hidden away from view in unsuitable locations such as rubbish tips or disused car parks, often without adequate shade and no access to good food, only leaves from city trees intoxicated with pollutants.

Elephants are frequently drugged to keep them calm in the chaotic city environment.

Many city elephants suffer from respiratory diseases as a result of constantly breathing in polluted air and are at risk of standing on broken glass and other debris on the streets leading to infections.

They are not bathed regularly, as elephants should be, and this often leads to skin diseases.

Thailand has a thriving tourism industry. Unfortunately this has been exploited by people wishing to make money by using elephants as ‘entertainment’ and every day hundreds of animals are suffering at the hands of humans purely to make a profit for their owners.

They are forced to perform degrading and unnatural tricks, often being beaten with spike hammers. Kept on chains 24 hours a day, these animals lose their dignity and freedom and merely exist as moneymaking commodities. The elephants are worked hard, often with out shade, and denied the much needed time for eating, drinking and bathing.

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In many ways, this was an eye-opening trip. I met people from all over the world, many of whom were activists and seasoned travelers. I was exposed to a lot of new (to me) ideas which have stayed with me and had a big influence on my politics and lifestyle. Just last year, I met up with one of my friends from WFFT in Amsterdam and had a ball reminiscing about our days walking the elephants.

Ready for your first experience volunteering overseas?

A friend of mine, Cátia Lúcio, shares her experiences at WFFT here.

Volunteer with elephants through Globalteer in Thailand or Cambodia.

Allambie Orphanage

Allambie Orphanage

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Last Thursday I got to visit Allambie for dinner to meet and hang out with the kids. It was one of my favourite moments in Saigon and I left feeling so inspired and even more passionate about finding and sharing information about the people here doing amazing things.

Abandoned as baby in Vietnam, founder Suzanne Hook was rescued by some English nurses from an orphanage in Saigon and taken back to the UK where she was adopted. As an adult, she started visiting Vietnam to volunteer and in 2010 made the life changing decision to give up her life in London and move to Vietnam permanently. Saddened by how badly run many of the orphanages here are run, and how bleak the lives of the children living there were, she was determined to show the Vietnamese that it can be done another way. Rather than being institutionalized, Suzanne wanted these children to have a home, and a family. She sold her house and car and set off for Saigon where she set up her own orphanage, Allambie.

Every night the family sit down to dinner together, mobiles are banned and they talk about their day. It was such a lovely experience to be part of that, and to see how close they all are. The kids are great, and after dinner we all sat down to play Uno and card games. Chuyen even taught me how to do a magic trick!

Allambie is a registered UK charity and has strict policies for their volunteers, everyone must provide a CRB form (criminal records bureau) or their countries equivalent. They mostly meet Suzanne first and then if she feels they would be a good fit, they are invited for dinner to meet the kids and hang out. I think it is such an important process. Many orphanages in Vietnam have volunteers come and go, which gives the children no sense of routine or stability. With other organisations you can come for a week, a month, maybe six and then leave again. These children form bonds with people, who then leave. Eventually, they will build up a wall and stop becoming close to people. I intend to go into this subject in more detail in another post soon. The beauty of Allambie, is that they have a stable family, Suzanne and the other children. The house is full of love and they all have a routine. Volunteers are essential in helping to keep everything running smoothly, but when they leave the kids still have their family and that makes a world of difference.

I can’t express how much admiration I have for Suzanne and what she has done here in Saigon. Stories like this are exactly why I am here, why I want to work in development and why I want to share it with you all!

http://www.allambie.co.uk/

Volunteering with Saigon Helping Hands

As soon as I landed in Saigon, I found a volunteer group on Facebook, “Saigon Helping Hands”. They are a Saigon based group of volunteers who do lots of different events and fundraisers in the city. They are mostly young people who work and like to volunteer in their free time.We met at 7.30am at the zoo and set off from there. I was a bit surprised to learn it was a 90min drive into the countryside since all the previous info was in Vietnamese !!! The weather was better than it has been since I got here though, and the drive was gorgeous.

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We arrived at around 9 at Ben San Leprosy Village. I was unaware, before doing this, that leprosy was even still such a big problem. I did a little research and here are a few things I learned.

-Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by a bacillus.

-Official figures show that more than 213, 000 people mainly in Asia and Africa are infected, with approximately 249, 000 new cases reported in 2008.

-M. leprae multiplies very slowly and the incubation period of the disease is about five years. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.

-Leprosy is not highly infectious. It is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases.

-Untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Early diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) remain the key elements in eliminating the disease as a public health concern.

-Body parts can become numb or diseased as a result of secondary infections; these occur as a result of the body’s defenses being compromised by the primary disease.Secondary infections, in turn, can result in tissue loss causing fingers and toes to become shortened and deformed, as cartilage is absorbed into the body.

-In 1995, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that between 2 and 3 million people were permanently disabled because of leprosy at that time.In the past 20 years, 15 million people worldwide have been cured of leprosy.

-Leprosy has affected humanity for over 4,000 years,and was recognized in the civilizations of ancient ChinaEgypt and India.Although the forced quarantine or segregation of patients is unnecessary in places where adequate treatments are available, many leper colonies still remain around the world in countries such as India(where there are still more than 1,000 leper colonies),China,and Japan.Leprosy was once believed to be highly contagious and was treated with mercury—all of which applied to syphilis, which was first described in 1530. It is possible that many early cases thought to be leprosy could actually have been syphilis. The age-old social stigma[15] associated with the advanced form of leprosy lingers in many areas, and remains a major obstacle to self-reporting and early treatment. Effective treatment first appeared in the late 1940s. Resistance has developed to initial treatment. It was not until the introduction of MDT in the early 1980s that the disease could be diagnosed and treated successfully within the community.

There are 150 children at the village, some who are sick and some who are there because their parents or guardians are sick.

Mid-Autum Festival is celebrated in Vietnam next weekend and is regarded as a children’s holiday, not unlike Halloween at home. So, this event was set up to make sure these kids get to celebrate the holiday too! We set up 15 stations for them, each station had a game. My station was fishing, they had a long bamboo stick with a fishing line and hook on the bottom and they had to scoop up a fish from here.

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Each fish had a number on the bottom. Each kid had a piece of paper, and their points for each game were recorded on here. When they had tried all the games, they took their paper to the prize station and claimed their prizes. The volunteers brought lots of moon cakes, iced tea and sushi for snacks and they got colourful lanterns to take home for the festival this weekend.

This Grandma was playing all the games for her grandchild.

This Grandma was playing all the games for her grandchild.

I had so much fun, the kids absolutely love the games. They thought I was very strange though, and only the older ones could understand that I didn’t speak Vietnamese. There was a lot of staring but I did make two very good buddies. These two were at my station over and over again and always got me to play with them!

My besties!

The kids went home around 12 and the volunteers sat down to a delicious home cooked meal prepared by some women at the centre.

All the volunteers from Saigon Helping Hands were fantastic! The were really friendly and I hope that I get the chance to work with them again during my stay here in Saigon.

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IMG_0053Some kids collecting their prizes