Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Donating to the Homeless at Christmas

Reposted from Christmas season 2010.....

Well, it's that time of year again when many people choose to give to the homeless. Some of them are people who give year-round -- whether it's on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis. Others give a few times a year. Some only give during the holiday season. But a large percentage of what gets donated to the homeless gets donated at this time of year. Some give from the heart. Others may do it to appease their conscience. Or it might be a tax write-off. Regardless of the reason, we'll take 'em all -- and appreciate them all.

However, there are certain things that people should understand when giving. One is that, on occasion, there are too many people giving to the homeless at one time. The other is that some of the homeless horde the donations, while others get nothing. I often tell about this past Palm Sunday when I ate 2 plates of food at Martha's Table and then walked down to Franklin Park. In a 2-hour span, no less than 6 groups of do-gooders came through the park feeding the homeless. After the 3rd or 4th group, I began to tell people,"No more. I can't eat anymore" and ask them if they were trying to stuff me like a turkey. As far as the hording is concerned, shelter staff (which sometimes consists of homeless people) is notorious for "getting theirs off the top" when donations come in. They often get more than they need and they always get the cream of the crop.

But not all donations are given to shelters. Some are given directly to the homeless. Throughout November and December numerous groups of do-gooders will pull up next to Franklin Square Park or McPherson Square Park with their pick-ups, vans, U-Haul trailers and box trucks and give out coats, hats, gloves, hygienics, blankets, boots and sneakers, just to name a few items. Many of the items will be redundant. This is especially true of hygienics. Nonetheless, many of the same homeless people will run to each and every truck as if there were no tomorrow and some will take additional blankets, though they already have 3 or more. Others will take an additional pair of boots, though they got 2 new pairs within the past couple of weeks. While those who are quick on their feet are hording all of the goods, there will be others who get little or nothing.

Some groups take orders during one trip to the park and bring what people asked for on their successive trip. This works well for some of the homeless -- those who are able to make it to the park on the day of the return trip so as to pick up what they ordered. Others, for one reason or another are not there when the group returns and their order is given away. Then there are those who get upset because they didn't get what they asked for. When all names have been called and gifts given to those who requested them, that's when the gifts of the no-shows are given to people who weren't there on the day that orders were put in. This is where all Hell breaks loose, as people begin to knock each other over in an effort to get the best gifts.

I don't mean to color the homeless community bad. They are simply struggling to survive and are using learned behaviors that have kept them alive on the streets. That said, there IS hope. Here are some ideas as to how to better organize the giving of Christmas gifts and other donations:

For some time now I have told people that we need to have a website where various do-gooders could post their plans on a schedule. They could list what they plan to give, the park or other location where they plan to give it and how much they plan to give. Then, food donations could be spread out such that we don't get too many feeding on some days and not enough feeding on other days. The site administrator and some volunteers would need to visit the parks and other sites where goods are given out in order to inform donors about the site and compile their information. They'd also need to inform the homeless and their service providers of the website's existence so that they can use it to find what the homeless person needs. Long story short, this would require a lot of dedication. I've mentioned it to several college and church groups, but haven't found any takers.

While food donations need to be spread out so that the homeless have food on every day of the week, it is best for multiple groups to give out large quantities of non-food items simultaneously. This helps to ensure that everyone will get what they need. It makes hording harder insomuch as the would-be hoarders can only carry so much at one time. (Trucks coming on different days/hours enables the hoarders to carry smaller quantities to their hiding places and then return to await the next truck.) I have begun to encourage different churches that give out non-food items to come at the same time.

Donations could be given to shelters and feeding programs. They could even be given directly to the homeless in the parking lot of some shelters and feeding programs, as opposed to handing them off to the shelter or program staff. (A certain church from Mechanicsville, VA used to give out coats and backpacks outside of the Dinner Program for Homeless Women -- renamed Thrive DC -- on the 1st Saturday of every December. I believe they now do it in Franklin Square Park.)

It is important to note that food, hygienics, boots, clothes and the several tangible items that I've mentioned in this blog post are not the only things that homeless people need. They often need services such as haircuts. They tend to enjoy pleasant company (I especially enjoy that.) Many of us homeless like to spend hours on end just talking to the groups of people who come to serve us. we also love to sing with these groups. So, even if you don't have any material goods to give out, come and give your love. I promise we won't fight over that.

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