[Hpn] myprimetime.com's HOMELESS FOR THE HOLIDAYS

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Tue, 19 Dec 2000 00:15:51 -0700


Homeless For The Holidays
by Ashley Ball 

The very poor are different from you and me.

Or at least that's what we seem to think. The homeless and hungry show up on
our radar about once a year, when 'tis the season to give. But what we give,
and how we give it, often makes no sense at all.

Chance Martin, San Francisco editor of the homeless paper The Street Sheet,
relates a story from a homeless man who wishes to remain anonymous. During
1994's El Nino, when it rained for a Noahesque 40 days, he holed up in a bus
shelter trying to stay dry. People driving by would drop off "all sorts of
things: bundles of magazines, a 20-lb roast, even a microwave." It was just
stuff they were getting rid of, he said.

What on earth would a dirty man stranded in a flooded bus shelter do with a
microwave and a hunk of raw meat? The idea is blackly comical. But think
about what we give during the flood of holiday goodwill: canned pumpkin pie
filling doesn't help those without pie shell or oven; and if that sweatshirt
is too ratty for you to wear indoors, what good is it to someone who lives
in a chilly cardboard Hooverville?

Common sense disappears when we donate to the homeless. Maybe it's because
of the way we look at the people themselves. Or more accurately, the way we
look away.


Homeless From The Inside Out
by Ashley Ball 

"If they could walk through you, they would."

That's how Dacia Adams describes the rest of the world from a homeless
perspective: a parade of well-meaning, well-dressed people filing by with
averted eyes, hoping not to get hit up by yet another panhandler.
A photographer's portraits of the homeless

Dacia's experience with homelessness started on Christmas Eve 1994. The Los
Angeles writer had just gone through a breakup, and seeing no place to turn,
she found herself instead in a Santa Monica shelter. At least, she consoled
herself, she would be able to write about it later.

Waking on Christmas Day, it didn't seem so bad. Shiny-faced holiday givers
"were everywhere, coming out of the woodwork." As she was lucky enough to
have a car, an experienced shelter-dweller took her in hand: "'Let's go hit
the churches.'"

The churches were a treasure trove. Adams and her savvy friend stocked up on
food  turkey and cranberry and holiday largesse  and blankets, the veteran
knowing he could sell them on the streets. Everything seemed plentiful.

The next day, though, was a revelation. The normal staff was back, people
who had once been probation officers and prison guards. The meals reverted
to "leftover bagels, thin gruel, something or other with meat... I gained
about 10 pounds in a month, and I still felt undernourished."

No matter. Adams was a Brahmin in the hierarchy of shelterees. In addition
to the car, she had a Blockbuster movie card. "You wouldn't believe the
blood and violence in some of the movies people had at the shelter; it
wasn't healthy. But when I rented The Search For Bobby Fisher, the biggest
burliest guys there were glued to it like it was the Super Bowl. They all
stood up and cheered when he finally made his big chess move."

Chess was a pastime in the sedentary life of the shelter, as were cards.
And, predictably, everyone smoked.

Still, it wasn't all idleness. Many of the people at the shelter went to
work each day, and lots of them still had cars. Some of the men were in the
process of divorce, and their wives had the house. They would live in the
car as long as they could without arousing suspicion; the shelter was always
a last resort. 

These in particular were the people who triggered fear in volunteers and
passers-by. They were too close; they could have been your sixth grade
teacher or the man who signed your bank loan. Adams calls the blank,
I-will-not-see-you stare that greeted this sector (herself included, in her
neat blazer, tennis shoes, and slacks) a "There but for the grace of God"

For most of us, it only comes off once a year.

Fine, so outside of the holidays we're not nice to the homeless. What are we
supposed to do? What should we give?



Tampons Not Teddy Bears
by Ashley Ball 

Want to give the homeless a donation that makes a difference? Think
practical, nix pretty.


Homeless Priorities, according to a Washington, D.C. homeless shelter (in
descending order):
Medical help
Legal assistance
Help with benefits 
Psychiatric evaluation


We talked to homeless shelter dwellers, directors, volunteers and
coordinators across the country. Here's what they say they need:

Hotel toiletries

First class airline packages

"We have to send a lot of our people to detox, and they're required to bring
all their own toiletries."
 Linda Kaufman, Director of Homeless Services, Downtown DC Drop-In Center,

New heavy socks

New underwear


Infant formula

Feminine hygiene products

"If money weren't an object, I'd give people a night in a hotel room where
they could be clean and comfortable, maybe watch TV and find a little
respite."  Chance Martin, The Street Sheet, San Francisco.

Large-size clothes

Warm coats and boots in September rather than December

"It's really hard for the bigger people to find clothes that fit them, and
getting warm clothes early is a priority."  Diane Nilan, Associate
Director, Hesed House, Aurora, Ill.

Off-season volunteers (unanimous)

"I wish some of our seasonal volunteers would just enjoy Christmas with
their families and make, say Feb. 27, the day they volunteer."
 Linda Kaufman

And here's what they don't need:

Stuffed animals 

"We have limited space, and it comes down to a decision of whether we can
accommodate a stuffed animal or a child."  Diane Nilan

Clothes in bad condition

"I don't want to sound whiny, but if it's too ratty for you, it's too ratty
for the homeless." 
 Linda Kaufman

Out of season clothes

Canned goods that donors are unloading

Groceries, fresh foods, or meats that need refrigeration
 Chance Martin

What about creative ways to help?


Mozart, Moccasins and the Mall
by Ashley Ball 

The Arts

Diane Nilan remembers when the Suzuki Music School came to Hesed House.
Watching the child prodigies set up their music stands in the midst of the
shelter, she thought, "Yeah right, they're really gonna go for classical
violin." But after the children stopped playing, she was amazed. "The most
unlikely people, my littlest heathens," she says, "were awestruck. They went
up to the performers to thank them afterward."

Share What You've Got (Big)

Genesco, a shoe manufacturer whose brands include Johnston & Murphy, Nautica
and Dockers, has shoes aplenty. Homeless people don't, and they need them.
The company had a fitting (most "customers" wanted a size or two too large
to accommodate extra socks) and a giveaway in Nashville that was so
successful they launched the Cold Feet, Warm Shoes program nationally.

Share What You've Got (Little)

Remember the man stuck with the roast and microwave in the bus shelter? His
luck turned around.

"[An] old couple in the neighborhood brought a dinner plate to share," he
relates, wishing to remain anonymous. "When they saw there were two homeless
people under the bus kiosk, they got another empty plate and divided the
food, explaining they were on a fixed budget. This evolved into an
arrangement: Whenever our homeless friend got grocery donations, he would
take them to the old couple's house. They cooked the food and shared it with
the folks holed up under the bus kiosk."

A Conglomerate For Good

Linda Kaufman's Washington drop-in center is one-stop independence shopping
for the homeless.

Logistics hurt these people. Food stamps take 30 to 45 days to get, and
they're available at one end of town. Employment counseling is located at
the other end, mired in red tape. How was a mother traveling on foot with
young kids going to get all of her bureaucratic chores done, and still get
back in time to get a bed at the shelter?

Kaufman created partnerships. First she approached an existing soup kitchen
and asked to set up a drop-in center there. Then, she asked the key
organizations that homeless people need to gain independence if they would
set up booths at the center each week at designated times.

Now the homeless can get food, food-stamp applications, career counseling
and medical advice from the same location. Kaufman is an example of using
the "mall" model for good: "back-on-your-feet" in one fell swoop.


A photographer's portraits of the homeless


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107,
this material is distributed without charge or profit
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