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.

 

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Success!

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.

handles-4

 

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.

Make Me Look Normal

This week when I was volunteering at the food pantry one of our homeless clients stopped in to let us know that he had gotten a job.  He was happy and proud of himself and wanted to share his good news, but he also had a request.  He wanted to know if we had any wipes so he could keep himself cleaned up and he wanted some food, especially food he could take to work to make him “look normal” to his coworkers.  Luckily we were able to provide both due to recent donations.  We gave him some wipes and a few cans of Chef Boyardee and stew and a can of Spam.  We even gave him a cantaloupe to celebrate of his good news!  Overall this interaction was positive, but his request to “look normal” tug at my heartstrings.  All he wanted was what most of us take for granted; he wanted to fit in, to be an accepted, productive member of society.

In our society we have a tendency to ignore or even shame people in poverty.  We look pasthomeless-man-free-picture-for-blogs-1[1] the homeless person sitting on the sidewalk or avoid making eye contact with the mother with the child who is asking for something to eat because he is hungry.  Or worse, we look at them with disgust or harsh judgement.  There are many reasons why we behave in this manner.  Maybe we are frustrated because we are working hard and not getting ahead and we worry that one day that could all too easily be us.  Or maybe we look away because we desperately want to be of assistance, but feel powerless to truly help these folks out of their situation.  Some may tell themselves this homeless person or single mother is responsible for his or her situation due to the poor decisions he or she has made in life, and therefore deserves no further consideration.  Whatever our rationale, the result of our actions is to push people living in poverty to the edges of society, to segregate them.

I admit that at times have been guilty of such actions myself.  I admit to looking past a homeless person or pretending not to hear the heartache in a mother’s voice as she responds to her child’s pleas of hunger.  I regretfully chose to look away because, at best, I could only help them in the moment, but do nothing to change their situation.  Initially, when I started volunteering in the food pantry I was worried about how to interact with the clients.  I didn’t want them to feel I was patronizing or pitying them.  In the end I settled my nerves by telling myself to just smile and greet them, to acknowledge them like I would any other person I would meet in my day.  I didn’t quite understand the power of that act until our client’s request to want to “look normal.”  He didn’t want anything special.  He just wanted to be regarded and treated like everyone else.  He is not alone, as I imagine most people living in poverty, in addition to wanting a path out of poverty, want to be treated with humanity and acceptance.

This longing to appear “normal”, I’m sure,  is felt strongly by children.  They may not understand why some children can have so much, but they do not.  Whenever we can we try to make sure a client with children gets the boxed mac and cheese with the Star War noodles or the Frosted Flakes.  We sometimes get donated boxes of Little Debbie birthday-cakesnack cakes or sweets that are out of season, like the packaged peppermint bark we got right after Christmas.  It is always fun slipping these items into a family’s monthly groceries, knowing the joy it will bring to a little one whose life holds few treats.  This past week we were able to ensure a young girl got a birthday party thanks to someone who donated a birthday party in a bag, which included cake mix, birthday candles, plates and napkins. (What a great idea this is!)  This young lady’s birthday party will be on Saturday and I will happily think of her getting to celebrate her birthday like a “normal” kid.

When I think what a food pantry provides I have been defining my answer in the broadest terms.  A food pantry provides food and other supplies to someone who is in need.  After this exchange with our homeless client, I realize what we provide is more than just food.  This gentleman came back to us to share his success, not only because he needed items, but because he knew he would be acknowledged and treated “normally”, that we would be happy for him and celebrate, as well as help him with his request.  One doesn’t have to volunteer in a food pantry, however, to have this interaction with people in poverty.  The next time you see someone struggling with poverty, certainly assist them if you can, but equally important, remember they want to be seen and treated as “normal”.  A smile and a friendly greeting can go a long way in making someone feel that they are accepted and belong.

Would You Eat That Cold?

canned soup2Tuesday my co-volunteer and I played “Would You Eat That Cold?” which is what we ask each other when we have to pack food for a homeless person who has no way of heating their food.  This week we also played the companion games, “Is This Too Heavy to Carry?” and ” How Long Do You Think This Can Last Unrefrigerated?” These companion games were necessary because the homeless gentleman we were assisting was without transportation and could only take what he could carry.  In addition, he lacked a refrigerator, cooler, or any other way to keep his food cold.  As games go, these are not a very fun.  This is the second time we have had to play them this month and at least the third time this year.  Each time we have played them, it has been with a different person.

Although this gentleman was new to me, he was not unfamiliar to my co-volunteer, who has been volunteering at the food pantry longer than I have.  This is the first time he has come to us homeless, however.  His experience tugged at our heartstrings.  He had been on the right path.  He attended college for three years, but left his education to care for his mother who was suffering from cancer.  As an only child, he was the only one she had.  He cared for her for a year and a half until she passed.  My co-volunteer characterized this man as an intelligent, engaging person, a caring father and loving son.  Unfortunately, in recent years he has been unable to find permanent employment and has chosen to trust people who have taken advantage of his generosity.  So now he finds himself homeless.  We gave him what we could, making sure the box wasn’t too heavy, and sent him to get some help with shelter.  Hopefully he will find a better housing situation and we will see him back in a few weeks to get a more regular allotment of food.

The type poverty our homeless gentleman is experiencing is classified as situational homeless-man-free-picture-for-blogs-1[1]poverty, which is defined as a period of being poor caused by situational factors like job loss, illness, divorce or natural disaster.  While he may not have had many extras as a child and young adult, he did not live in poverty; however, due to situational factors like having to take care of his mother during her illness and current difficulty finding employment, he now finds himself homeless and living in poverty.  If he could receive the necessary temporary assistance and find a permanent full time job that paid a living wage, so that he could begin to build a financial cushion, the likelihood exists that he would lift himself out of poverty.

I have just started researching the various types of poverty, and by types of poverty I do not mean the stratifications, like deep poverty, about which I’ve previously written.  These different types of poverty speak to the circumstances surrounding why a person is experiencing poverty and the characteristics of his or her experience.  My research is focusing on two types of poverty–situational and generational.  I believe it is important to understand the characteristics of each type of poverty, because these characteristics should be used to inform any policy or program created to assist those experiencing poverty.  Additionally, understanding the differences in types of poverty, that there even are differences, brings the realization that policies and programs to address poverty and its causes can not be one size fits all.  In the next week or so I plan to write a post sharing what I have learned about these two common types of poverty.

Why We Need a Living Wage

During my shift at the food pantry this week we packed food for a homeless man.  He was very young, not much more than a boy actually.  He came to us because he was desperate and hungry.  He had a job, although he hadn’t had it for long.  He didn’t have a car, so he walked over 3.5 miles each way to work, taking him over an hour.  We packed spamhim what we could, considering he didn’t have a refrigerator or any way to cook or warm his food.  What we gave him was a mish mash and not much of it was very healthy.  He said he would take anything we had to give, because he was really hungry.  We gave him SPAM, Vienna sausages, sardines, saltines, granola bars, tuna fish, peanut butter and a couple tiny jars of jelly.  We were also able to give him canned fruit, applesauce and beef stew and Chef Boyardee products (to be eaten cold).  All of these items had to have pop tops or foil tops because he doesn’t have a can opener.  Luckily we were able to give him some fresh grapefruit and apples.  We were also lucky that someone had donated a package of plastic forks, so we were able to give him something with which to eat.  He was fortunate to have a ride, which meant we were able to give him several bags of food.  If he had been walking we would have only been able to give him what he could carry.

Hopefully this young man’s life is beginning to turn around.  Hopefully he maintains his temp. job and it turns into a permanent position.  For him, this I hope, but here’s something I know.  I have packed food for other employees, permanent, full time employees who work for the same employer where this young man is currently temping.  So while I hope for a better future for this young man, I am not overly optimistic I will never see him at the food pantry again.  The plight of this you man and all the other people who are working full time jobs, yet still need SNAP, housing subsidies, Medicaid or food from a food pantry, clearly illustrates why the minimum wage needs to be raised to a living wage.  The current minimum wage of $7.25/hour barely keeps a single person without dependents, working 40 hours per week, above the poverty line.  Raising the minimum wage to the proposed $10.10/hour will only keep a 3 person household, say a single mom and 2 children, at the poverty line.  It is only when the minimum wage approaches $12-$15/hour that we see households begin to inch away from the poverty line.

factory worker

At the mention of a living wage, some will argue that it is a burden to small businesses and quite possibly for truly small businesses this may be true in many cases.  My family operated a small business for many years and employees were paid minimum wage.  It is quite possible that if my parents had had to pay their employees more per hour that all employees hours would have been cut or that they may have been forced to let someone go.  However, the minimum wage those employees took home was worth more than today’s minimum wage.  The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation.  When my parent’s began operating their business in 1978, the minimum wage was $2.65/hour.  When that salary is adjusted to today’s dollars it equals $9.14/hour.  Today’s minimum wage is $7.25/hour, which is almost $2.00/hour less than the 1978 minimum wage adjusted to today’s dollars.  The minimum wage in 1978 went farther, paid more bills, than the minimum wage of today.  Furthermore, many of the businesses paying employees today’s low minimum wage are large companies which boast sizeable yearly profits and are often run by CEOs who earn exorbitant salaries, suggesting these companies have the resources to increase their employees’ salaries.

Another common argument against raising the minimum wage to a living wage is that it will kill jobs.  Workers will be laid off and employers will be unable to hire employees, causing a stagnate job market.  Most economists used to believe that raising the minimum wage would have a negative effect on employment until the Card-Kruger study conducted in the early 1990s, which found a surprisingly positive effect.  Additionally, former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, points out that raising the minimum wage puts money directly into the pockets of people who are going to spend that money, mostly in the local economy.  That infusion of money into the economy creates a greater demand for goods and services, resulting in job creation.

mcdonalds archesSo, what happens when employers do not pay their employees a living wage?  Many of those employees are forced to turn to the government for assistance in the form of SNAP, Medicaid and housing and child care subsidies, forcing the U. S. taxpayer to make up the difference caused by their low wages.  According to an article by Clare O’Connor on Forbes.com, Walmart and McDonald’s cost U. S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, in public assistance because their workforce must turn to these social safety net programs in order to make ends meet.  At one point, McDonald’s even assisted it’s employees in signing up for public assistance programs, because they knew their low wages would not provide enough income for their workers to live on.  As a result of their employees receiving so much in public assistance benefits, Barry Ritholtz, in an article on the website Bloomberg View, labeled Walmart and McDonald’s as America’s largest and most undeserving welfare queens.

Many people in poverty are employed.  The homeless man I packed food for on Tuesday has a job.  Others are retail sales clerks, home health aides, janitorial staff and factory and warehouse workers.  They are performing often physically demanding jobs, doing tasks field workerthat make many of our lives easier, like picking our produce, caring for our children or elderly and ailing parents or cleaning our office buildings.  As Robert Reich so astutely stated when advocating for a living wage, “People who work full time are fulfilling their most basic social responsibility. As such, they should earn enough to live on.”  Raising the minimum wage to a living wage will not only restore dignity to America’s working poor, but it will stimulate the economy and assist in moving more Americans off of assistance and out of poverty.

Note:  A local paper reported this week that Walmart will be giving raises to all associates hired before January 1, 2016.  The average salary for full time associates after the raise will be $13.31.  The pay increase is part of a two year commitment, on the part of Walmart, toward higher pay, more effective training, clearer career paths and increased educational opportunities for workers.  This commitment is projected to cost Walmart $2.7 billion.

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.