Homeless Helpers!

Over the past few weeks we have helped more homeless individuals than usual and our supplies for the homeless have dwindled.  Much of what we are able to provide for our homeless clients comes from donations.  I have had several local readers regularly ask me what they can purchase that is needed most.  I often do not have a specific list of items, but today I do.  Here is a list of the items we could use to restock our shelves for the homeless.

  • small cans of fruit or applesauce
  • canned meat–Spam, Vienna Sausages, Potted meat, tuna (individual servings)
  • Cup of soup–dried soup mix in a cup to which you just add hot water
  • breakfast items–single servings of cereal, granola or breakfast bars
  • plastic utensils
  • paper plates and bowls
  • inexpensive can openers

We have a satisfactory supply of canned vegetables and canned soups, stews and other similar items.  Cans with a pull top lid are always the best in case our homeless client does not have a can opener and we do not have any on hand to give out.  As always, I am happy to collect items donated and take them into the food pantry when I volunteer.  Thank you so much for supporting and caring for our community’s homeless.




handles-2Yesterday we were able to offer one of our homeless clients the option of receiving food in a gently used backpack or plastic bags with the new Click and Carry handles.  Once we showed him how the handles worked, his preference was for the handles.  We gathered his food and packed the bags, making sure to pair some lighter bags with the heavy ones to give him a balanced load, both front and back and on each side.  All in all, we were able to give him at least one third more food than we have been able to give homeless clients in the past.  He was particularly happy to receive the handles, because he said the handles on the plastic bags dug uncomfortably into his hand after carrying them for a while.  We sent him off happy and told him to give us some feedback on how well they worked the next time he was in for food.

This morning I shared our success with the owner of the Click and Carry company and she was pleased to see her product being put to such good use.  I told her how happy I was to see how well they worked and how much more were able to provide for him.  I’m not sure who was more excited about this success, us or the owner/creator of Click and Carry.  Or perhaps our client, who is benefiting the most.



Click and Carry

As a volunteer in a food cupboard I have heard many stories that have broken my heart.  Often clients are embarrassed about needing help, so they want to explain why they are asking for food or sometimes they are just overwhelmed and want to share the frustration of their struggle with someone.  Even though their stories are often hard to hear, the sadness or frustration I feel is mitigated by the act of providing them with food.  I feel less helpless as I  watch them wheel their loaded shopping cart out to their car, knowing I have helped make their difficult time a little easier.  Unfortunately, with our homeless clients, this uplifting of spirit does not always occur.  The reason I am occasionally left with a sense of despair is that I can’t load a cart with food for them.  There is usually no car to which they can take bags and boxes of food.  I can only give them what they can carry, and it’s never enough, even for only one person.

canned-foodFor over a year I have been troubled by the problem homeless clients, especially those on foot, present.  We can not overcome some of the limitations that prevent us from providing our homeless clients with certain types of food.  For instance, if they have no way to keep food refrigerated, we can not give them food that requires refrigeration.  Similarly, if they do not have a means to cook food, we can not give them anything that requires even minimal cooking, like ramen noodles.  One problem unique to providing food to homeless clients that I have felt we can solve, however, is limitation on the quantity of food we are able to give them at one time.  The strategy to solving this problem involves a two-pronged approach–increasing the quantity and variety of food and nonfood items specifically for the homeless and coming up with solutions that allow homeless clients on foot leave with more food.

The first prong is the somewhat easier one to tackle.  For the most part, homeless clients receive different food than our non-homeless clients due to their unique living situations–no way to heat or refrigerate food and/or no can openers–which dictates the specialized food items they receive.  Consequently, a majority of the food they receive comes from donations.  As a result, we can only give homeless clients what we have in stock at the time.  I have had several local readers express an interest in donating food and other supplies for our homeless clients.  Over the summer I spent some time compiling a list of items, food and nonfood, that work for homeless clients given their unique circumstances.  I will post this list of suggested items for the homeless on my webpage.  It can be found on the dark blue banner at the very top of the page.  I will be happy to let anyone know of a specific need we have and to collect food and non-food items anyone wishes to donate.

The second prong in the approach to solving the problem of limitations on the amount of backpacksfood homeless clients can take with them involves figuring out a way for them to carry more food away, so that their allotment more closely resembles the amount an individual with transportation is able to take.  When packing food for a homeless client one of the questions we ask is whether s/he has a backpack.  Backpacks can be packed with heavier items and to capacity, as it is easier to carry something heavy on your back.  We have on occasion gotten backpacks donated, but do not always have them on hand for new homeless clients.  Additionally purchasing new ones is cost prohibitive.  Consequently, I starting searching for a more inexpensive alternative.  We usually pack as much food for clients as we can in boxes, but that is not very practical for homeless clients on foot, so most of their items are put into plastic bags.  Over time carrying multiple plastic bags in one’s hand can become uncomfortable or even painful if the bags are heavy, as anyone who has ever gone shopping at the mall can attest.  Thinking about these mall trips made me remember a sales clerk who rigged up a handle that the other handles went through so that I was only having to carry one handle in my hand.  She did this mostly so I didn’t drop a bag, but the result was also more comfortable to carry.

click-and-carryI began searching the Internet for an item that could be fed through the handles of multiple bags and then closed, making one single handle to carry.  What I found was Click and Carry.  The Click and Carry is a wide plastic handle, shaped to fit comfortably in one’s hand.  When the top of the handle is pushed down, it can rotate open allowing bag handles to be inserted.  To secure the plastic bag handles the top is just rotated back, clicking into place.  The bags can be carried in someone’s hand, or if the bag straps are long enough, they can be carried over the shoulder, allowing up to 50 lbs. to be carried at once.  I contacted the company and explained what I wanted to use the Click and Carry for.  The owner has graciously offered us a generous discount and the cheapest shipping she can find.  I am currently awaiting shipment of our first batch and can’t wait to start providing them for our homeless clients.shelves

Often when I sit down to write a blog post it is draining, because the subject matter can be bleak and depressing, or like the last post I wrote, frustrating and exasperating.  For me, I find it necessary to have positive news or events every so often.  They give me hope and keep me going.  I am excited about the Click and Carry and can not wait to receive them and start providing them to homeless clients.  In anticipation of an increase in supplies for our homeless clients, I straightened and reorganized the shelves where we store items appropriate for homeless clients to make more space.  I am hopeful that these actions will more successfully help us in assisting our homeless clients.

A Few Dollars and Some French Toast

The idea of being homeless really troubles me, as I am sure it does most people.  More than just being homeupset that the homeless lack food, warmth and shelter, I find myself worried about what their situation must do to their psyche.  Home is a refuge.  It is a place to which you retreat after a difficult day.  It is full of good smells, warmth, security and love.  I understand that not everyone who has a home views it as a refuge or has all the items I listed a home having, but if nothing else, a home does provide them shelter and a sense of place and belonging.  My heart goes out to every homeless person I encounter and I immediately want to help them.

Yet, I never quite know the best way for me to help a homeless person.  I have tried a variety of approaches.  When we lived in the SF Bay Area I would save spare change and whenever I went into San Francisco, Berkeley or Oakland I would fill my pockets with change to hand out as I went along.  I have bought coffee, breakfast and a slices of pizza for homeless people.  I haveGinos owl given homeless people food when volunteering at the food pantry.  I once paid an artistically talented homeless man, whom I had gotten to know in Berkeley, to draw a picture for me which hangs on the wall in my home to this day.

This past weekend my family went to Washington, D.C., and while there we encountered what was for me a new homeless situation–a homeless child.  I have encountered  runaway youth who are living homeless on the streets and homeless people with a variety of pets, but I have never knowingly encountered a child.  We were walking to the restaurant where we were going to have lunch and a few doors down from the restaurant was a homeless mother and her little girl.  The little girl was coloring and beside her was a teddy bear.  I was upset by the sight and in my embarrassment I just rushed past and into the restaurant.

I had decided shortly after sitting down that I would put a few dollars in my pocket to give them on my way out.  We ordered our food and talked about the museum we had just visited.  As we sat eating, my youngest son out of the blue asked, “Are we going to do something for them?”  I knew immediately what he meant and told him I had taken some money out for them and if he would like, he could give it to them.  As we left the restaurant my son, with money in hand, approached the mother and daughter.  He gave them the money, but as he returned I could tell he was still really bothered by their situation.  He had not finished his meal of French toast and I french-toastasked him if he would like to go give the little girl his remaining slices.  After deliberating a few seconds, because he really likes French toast, he said that he would like to share his meal with her and took his doggie bag over to them.  We were both still heavyhearted and talked as we walked about our feelings and frustrations.

Included in my frustrations if the fact that homelessness, like food insecurity, is a problem we can almost entirely eliminate, but as a society, we seem to have chosen not address homelessness in any serious manner.  I am assuming we have made this choice because, like eliminating food insecurity, significantly shrinking the homeless population will cost money.  The homeless population would undoubtedly shrink if we adequately funded society’s safety nets, the resources available to our veterans, resources for those needing mental health assistance and universal healthcare.

homeless cart

Recently I have heard comments about not taking in any more refugees or other immigrants until we can take care of our own, including our veterans.  This statement is said as if the United States is currently doing everything it can to care for its citizens and that is stretching us too thin to shoulder the responsibility for any others.  I would argue that we have done pitifully little to care for our own.  I told my son he had done a really good thing and that he helped that mother and little girl, and he did, but the painful reality is that the solitary actions of my family will do nothing to truly help that mother and child in any meaningful way.  This inability to truly help or change their situation upsets me greatly, and is the cause of the embarrassment I felt when I first saw the mother and daughter.  I want to help this woman and her child, but I am powerless and saddened by the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Homeless in Winter

freezing thermometerIn the past week in southeastern Pennsylvania it has snowed twice, once with a topping of freezing rain and sleet.  Last Friday morning the temperature with the wind chill was between -10 and -15 degrees.  The coldest weather this area has seen in 50+ years.  This morning it was 1 degree without the wind chill.  When people meet in public the topic is how cold it is and how ready everyone is for Spring to get here.

This morning at the food pantry I met Bill (not his real name).  He is ready for Spring to come too.  Bill is homeless and lives in a tent.  He knows exactly how cold it has been and what type of precipitation has been falling from the sky.  Twice his tent has collapsed on him from the weight of the snow.  He has a kerosene heater, but no kerosene.  Bill keeps warm with and cooks over an open fire.  He has been given permission to “camp” within the patrolled area of a local food manufacturer’s property because his tent has been burglarized more than once.  What little money he has, Bill makes from selling firewood, otherwise he has no income.  He cleans a friend’s home in exchange for her driving him places and allowing him to store items, like eggs, in her refrigerator.

His homeless situation presented us with challenges in gathering his food.  First we had to make sure he had gotten a ride, which he luckily had.  Otherwise he could only take what he could carry.  The other volunteer working with me today knew of Bill’s situation, so she knew he could only have cans and only ones with a pop tops.  He needs cans because he can put them right in his fire to warm them and pop tops because his can opener has been stolen twice.  The extreme temperatures make keeping liquids problematic for him.  He does have a cooler but he said the water he had, had frozen solid the other day even in the cooler.  In spite of these challenges, we were able to send Bill on his way with several items.

D2D-PIT-CallOut-2014According to a Point-in-Time count conducted on January 29, 2014, 684  people were experiencing homelessness on that night here in Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county.  Point-in-Time counts are used to help determine how many people are experiencing homeless on any given night in an area.  This figure includes those in emergency shelters, transitional housing, receiving motel subsidies and, like Bill, unsheltered.  Even if Bill had wanted to come in out of the cold, there are no shelters in our corner of this county.  The nearest ones are 25-30 miles away.

I would have not been surprised if Bill had been bitter or angry, but he was not.  He said he had too much to do to think about being cold, but he lingered with us as long as he could.  It is forecast to be below average in temperature for at least the next week.  Tonight, as I get into my bed with flannel sheets and three blankets, I will think about Bill and hope that he is okay.  At least I know he won’t be hungry.