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Volunteering at Citizens Advice Westminster brings research to life

As reported by Faduma, a volunteer who joined CAW in the summer of 2023.

Having recently graduated, I applied to volunteer at Citizens Advice Westminster (CAW) as a Research and Campaigns assistant. Much of the research I dealt with at university was secondary data that was at least 3-5 years old. Volunteering at CAW has meant that I’ve seen and used data and research in real time. This is what makes CAW such a thrilling place to both work and volunteer. Clients are generous enough to share their experiences and help campaigns for change in any way possible. Having live data ensures that there’s a unique insight into the current emerging issues, which an academic setting can’t quite provide.

My first campaign came on World Homeless Day. The campaigning, which was a collaboration between Shelter and CAW, was held in front of CAW’s office at the Stowe Centre on Harrow Road. Alongside the Shelter staff, Brenda Smith (Advisor and Research and Campaigns Coordinator for CAW) and I passed out leaflets and chatted with members of the public. Along the way, we met the diligent staff of St Mungo’s, and Damian of Raisa’s Barber, all of whom have met many people dealing with housing issues. Many members of the public with whom Brenda and I spoke expressed powerful, emotional sentiments. Behind the statistics, there are real people with real stories: families who are forced into cramped conditions, children growing up without space to study and play, and people sleeping on the streets. The majority felt frustrated and angry at the government’s handling of the housing crisis. As we spoke with individuals, they shared their own personal stories and views, which painted a grim picture of the housing crisis in our country. In one poignant encounter, we met a woman who revealed that her own mother has been in temporary accommodation for several years now, a stark reminder of the urgent need for an effective solution to this ongoing crisis.

Clients and members of the public don’t need to be convinced; they come willingly to raise their voices on the issues affecting them and other Westminster residents. They recognise the extent and urgency of the issues. For me, the highlight of the World Homeless Day campaign was the “one minute of noise”. As the public and politicians become more desensitised to the number of homeless people, it is imperative to make noise on their behalf, symbolizing the refusal to be forgotten. Homelessness is not an issue that can be swept under the rug. As a volunteer, it’s so rewarding to know that I’m part of an organisation that doesn’t just help clients with individual issues, but also researches and campaigns more widely on their behalf. Having access to clients’ lived experiences and the resulting live data is something that I find so effective and significant in helping to truly understanding an issue. It adds a human element that simply isn’t present in the academic setting.

I’ve only been volunteering for a few months, but the knowledge and training I’ve gained has brought colour to the black and white world of desk-based research that I was formerly accustomed to.