Unpacking a hallowed tradition: Home Visits

by | Oct 12, 2014 | Society of St. Vincent de Paul

featured-image-generic-svdpWilliam Graham reflects on “Unpacking a hallowed tradition: Home Visits”

Lets look at the home visit,  lets examine what is the home visit,  why do we do the home visit, how we go about the home visit, and most importantly, what we want to accomplish and how do we overcome the reasons some Vincentians have for not doing home visits.


Vincentians have been known to say; “If you are not doing home visits, your not doing it right”  Personally, I agree with this and encourage individuals and conferences to examine their situation and find ways to get back to doing home visits. It might not be easy, and it might take time. But I encourage you to make the effort and ask for help from other Vincentians, or from your next higher council.


A home visit is a visit with the person or family by two Vincentians. Yes, always two Vincentians, We are like the Apostles, we travel in pairs. But not three as that becomes threatening to the person we are serving.  The home visit is preferably in the home but not always. In the case of a homeless person we might meet privately in a room in the church, a room in the clothing store or perhaps a booth out of the way in a Tim Horton’s. It doesn’t really matter where as long as the visit ascertains the persons needs and gives us a clear picture of the person’s situation and their needs so we might determine what we can do to help them in the short term and long term. No rule should be cast in stone and in situations where the person is a long distance from the conference, perhaps, on occasion,  the person will pick up the food and/or food vouchers, etc. from our distribution point.  Yes there are people served by conferences who are as much as 60 miles away. This should be the exception rather than the rule. As Vincentians, we must inconvenience ourselves in the interest of doing it (the home visit)  right.

A home visit is not dropping off food or vouchers at the door. The vouchers are in my pocket until I am seated and the visit is concluded.


I believe there are only two reasons for doing the home visit and each are equally important.

1.) Visiting a person or family in their home gives us a better understanding of them and their needs.  We are visitors and their guests in their home and this makes a more comfortable and relaxed situation for our neighbours in need.  As visits continue, our neighbours in need become more relaxed, learn that we are there to help them and friendship and trust builds up to the point where they will trust our suggestions on ways to help themselves.

2.) Perhaps, if we want to be selfish we will consider the second reason as first.  I firmly believe, that as Vincentians, we grow in Spirituality mainly through home visits. I don’t believe the spiritual growth will come as readily any other way. That is what is in it for the Vincentian.  And of course the Spirituality we receive leads to personal inner peace and as Blessed Frederick said “Peace of Heart”, the most valuable of God’s gifts. I believe that without spirituality we have nothing.


There are many different and effective ways to do this.  One example might be for the neighbour in need to call the church line with a Saint Vincent dePaul extension or call a separate line leaving their phone number and name.  The Vincentian on call that week will receive and respond to the call with as little delay as possible.  The Vincentian will first look up the person’s record sheet to become familiar with them then call the person (possibly using *67 to block their number if it is a private phone), to ascertain what their needs are, confirm the address, buzz code etc and an alternate telephone number if possible then agree on a time to visit them.

Next the person making the call will call another Vincentian asking them to accompany them on the call. We preferably make calls with a man and woman. Both Vincentians should be familiar with the situation and prepare whatever they are taking to the visit whether it be food, vouchers or both and whatever else they might have. Be sure the food you bring is not stale dated. Giving stale dated food is an insult.

While we want to have some idea of the person’s financial situation, most Vincentians do not ask for documentation. They show the person in need the same trust that our benefactors show us.  The child’s first name and age is all we require and only for Christmas.

The litmus test is to ask yourself if you were serving your son, daughter or parent would that be acceptable. If we see Christ in those we serve this should make our decisions easy.

It is important that they say a short prayer individually or together to remind themselves that they can do nothing without the Lord’s help and that they go well armed with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Realizing this, the Vincentians will make the right decisions.

Responding to the call without delay is so important and many Vincentians can tell you of cases where they went to a home in the evening where the mother and children had no supper and would have had nothing for breakfast had they not gone.  How many mothers go to bed hungry so their children can eat. Yes people are often that desperate. Imagine the concern and fear these mothers have.  This, unfortunately, is the reality of the times. Aren’t we fortunate to have the resources to respond. I think Vincentians eventually develop a feeling to tell them the urgency of the call. Perhaps from the tone of the caller’s voice.

We should introduce each other when the person being visited opens the door and ask them if we can come in and visit.

When we complete the visit we must fill in the record sheet in whatever form we use for this so the next person receiving a call from this person will be aware of what you said and brought.

Also the two Vincentians are never out of site of each other. If you forget something in your vehicle, both go together to retrieve the item.

When you conclude the visit and leave. It is appropriate to say a short thank you to the Lord for his help and also discuss the visit with your partner and find out their feelings. Also thank your partner for coming out with you.  We always must remember that without the Lord’s help we can do nothing.


We might be serving an occasional caller who has periodic problems. For this person, we just serve them willingly and help as best we can to resolve the problem. Often this is a one-time need.

We must remember that we have two roles when serving our neighbours in need.

1.) Bring immediate help in any possible way which is a hand out.

2.) Bringing information and encouragement to help the individual out of the spot they are in. This is a hand up.

The hand up is our most important role and almost impossible without being able to do a home visit.

The hand up is a much more important role than keeping the person poor for another month. Often we will do both.

For a repeat call to a neighbour in need we need to classify the person or family in one of several categories such as;

1.) The single mom with several children and just not enough money to meet their basic needs.

We are fortunate to have the resources to help this person as long as they can’t make ends meet and as regularly as possible for as long as necessary

2.) The single person, often a senior, with just not enough money to make ends meet. They might need that extra box of food and a voucher to do them till month end. We are privileged to be able to help.

3.) The neighbour in need with mental issues. Again this person cannot help themselves. They need our help and we should serve them with a smile as regularly as possible for as long as necessary.

4.) The person who isn’t working but whom we feel could and should be working.  This person or persons is our most important challenge. Helping the person stay in the position of poverty where they are is an injustice. We owe it to them, to our benefactors and to ourselves to help them find the way up and out of this position. If we continue bringing help without dealing with the cause we are enabling the person to stay poor. This is a disservice.

Every community, region etc has many programs to help people who are marginalized and less fortunate than others.  It is up to our conference or council to be aware of the community programs and groups that can help and make sure that the Vincentians have this information.

These programs might be:

  • Trade shows where companies hire
  • Resume writing programs
  • Programs to learn English, computer skills etc.

There are many programs in every community. It is up to us to know the organizations in our community, find these programs and get the information to those we serve.

It is also most important that we follow up with the person on each visit and expect results. Our attitude to our neighbour in need should be that we will walk with them and help them as much as they will help themselves. helping the person and/or their family move to a position of self dependence is rewarding.  Sometimes we don’t get the results we hoped for but, because there are children,  we will usually continue to serve them.


Conferences move away from home visits for many reasons including the following;

  • The most common reason is lack of Vincentian members to serve.
  • An increase in the numbers of new people needing to be served can sometimes be overwhelming.
  • Accepting offers from other community groups to join forces.

There are many parishioners in every parish that want to serve. It is up to yourself, your conference or Council to find these people.  They are there. There are good, potential Vincentians in every parish. Talk off the alter. Tell your parishioners what you need. Tell them how many families you serve every month. Give them examples of some of the families you serve and their desperate need. Once found they must go through thorough formation programs to learn the Vincentian program, understand poverty and learn how and why we serve.  When this formation and screening is complete they must be interviewed to ensure they are of Vincentian quality, with Vincentian hearts and that they will serve the neighbours in need with justice and joy. The screening and interview is important. You want good, kind hearted people, not just numbers. Don’t be afraid to refuse people.

The increase in the numbers needing to be served happens when there is an economic downturn in a community.  Often this is where the Particular Council can help and enlist  resources and help from adjoining conferences.  Perhaps this might mean at least a temporary adjustment of conference boundaries.

As Vincentians we must follow in the footsteps of Frederick and Louise and visit those neighbours in need in their home where the visit will be of value to themselves and the person in need.

Joining with other groups is not an attractive or acceptable Vincentian solution if the following  non-Vincentian things happen:

  • Those neighbours in need are served at a food Bank rather than their home.
  • Families are fully documented right down to the marriage licence in some instances.
  • The group rules how often people get help and the amount of food they receive.
  • Giving stale dated food is acceptable.
  • The food bank closes for a few weeks for summer vacation
  • Families are refused for no good reason
  • Christmas has a cut-off date
  • Children up to a certain age only receive gifts and adults aren’t included.
  • People are cut off for a variety of reasons

These above noted actions, in my opinion, do not meet our Vincentian mission and values statement.

We are saddened to see many conferences succumb to this “Easy Way Out”. we urge and encourage them to find the way back to home visits.


The opinions expressed in this article are not intended to convey the views or policy of  The Society of Saint Vincent dePaul but only the views of the writer.

Sgd: William Graham