This post is partially in response to Code Name: Mama's question of how to volunteer with a toddler. One of my suggestions was to make your own volunteer opportunities. Here's one as an example, from a project our small group at church just completed.
Every year, each small group gets $200 to spend improving the neighborhood in some way. This year we did a few different projects, and making goody bags to hand out to homeless people was one I think is easily adapted to family use.
If you live in an urban area, particularly, you've probably been approached multiple times by panhandlers, and you probably also know there's a homeless problem in your area. You might not know that panhandlers and the homeless are not necessarily the same demographic. For instance, many panhandlers are professionals and not necessarily homeless, whereas most homeless people do not panhandle (beg for money). To read more about this, here are a few links:
- The professional panhandling plague from City Journal
- Brother, can you spare $4.6 million? from Blogcritics
- The problem of panhandling from Center for Problem Oriented Policing
Homeless people are complex, because they are people. There is no single characteristic to sum them up as a group beyond that "homeless" label, and even that can be hard to pin down. Some beg on the streets, but some are families living in temporary housing. Some are looking for work, and some have chosen not to. Some have had that choice taken from them due to mental illness and lack of support, and other reject support when it's offered. Just like, you know, you and me. Someone who's reading this now might be homeless, which is only to be expected.
So when you see people on the streets with their hands out, it's not always easy to verify what type of financial assistance they need, whether they really need it, or what they'll do with that money if it's given to them.
One solution a group at our church came up with is what I'm terming "homeless goody bags," though you can title them less flippantly if you so choose.
Next time someone asks you for change, you can hand over one of these bags o' loveliness, and know that you've given out useful, concrete, innocent items that will hopefully be used for good and can almost certainly not be used for ill. If your recipient really needs food, clothing, toiletries, and just some general attention, this bag should brighten his or her day. If not, no harm done and you've avoided the moral quandary of "Do I give or don't I?"
Since you can get your children involved (from toddler age right on up), it also includes them both in the conversation — talking about charity, about deservedness and privilege, about circumstances and safety nets and "there but for the grace of God," about harsh realities, all according to their developmental capacities — and in the doing — trying to find a practical way to show compassion in a challenging situation, and perhaps vaulting all of you out of your comfort zone and into community with people you wouldn't normally rub shoulders with.
That seems like a lot of weight for a "homeless goody bag" to carry, but let's go with it.
What goes in a homeless goody bag?
Anything you want, really! I'll list what went in ours, along with some alternate or additional ideas. You can buy new and in bulk to make identical bags, or you can scavenge what you have already at home to make one-of-a-kind prizes. You can put a little or a lot into your bags. There really are no rules.
If you want to do this as a group of families, invite each family to bring a certain number of one or two items each, and then divvy the plunder up amongst the group members. This way each member can volunteer to bring the item or items that are easiest for that person to procure.
- A bag or receptacle of some sort. We went with resealable plastic, but you could use a more eco-friendly option if you wished, such as leftover plastic grocery bags, recycled paper lunch bags, or repurposed cloth tote bags or backpacks from the thrift store. (Of course, if we'd used such, I wouldn't have been able to take pictures through them, would I?) The size you need will depend on what and how much you want to put inside.
- Socks. I put this first because it's maybe the thing you'd think of last, if at all, but according to our sources in the homeless community, new, warm socks are always a welcome gift. We went with basic white tube socks, bought in the large package and then divided up among the bags.
- Non-perishable food that's easy to eat on the go. Think granola bars, easy-open fruit cups (and perhaps a spoon would have been a nice addition to ours!), raisins, crackers (but be careful not to turn your bag into Crumb City), dried fruit, etc. Don't include anything that requires a kitchen or dining room to eat (e.g., can opener, stove, special utensils, etc.).
- Treats, like gum or mints.
- Bottled water or other non-perishable drink. I know it's not eco-conscious, but I doubt you'll be handing out stainless steel carafes to everyone. Although, if you are, more power to you! Maybe you could find some cheap options at a thrift store and clean them well before filling with tap water.
- Toiletries and personal items. You might already have some of these lying around the house, just waiting to be used. Toothbrushes from your dentist, travel floss, waterless toothbrushing samples, travel tissue packs, sample- or travel-size toiletries from hotels, hand sanitizer, etc. I'll point out that I expect these items to be new and unused. The idea isn't to get rid of junk, but if you have things you'll never personally use (I know I have a guilty habit of hoarding samples, for instance, as well as buying the wrong type of toothbrush on occasion), you might as well take this opportunity to pass them along in a good cause.
- Something fun. Sam went to a book sale and picked up a bunch of used paperback novels for 50 cents apiece. If you're really lucky, you might find some for 25 cents or less, or you could raid your own shelves for books you enjoyed but are ready to pass on. Sam admitted that he probably overthought his book choices, but I think he did a great job of picking out a range of novels that were generally light reads, and not too thick and heavy for the bag. With books, it's quite possible the person won't like that particular book — but that's not really your responsibility. Once you give a gift, it's given and it's the recipient's choice how much to appreciate it. Just trust that the quirky choices in your bags will hit home with at least some of your recipients. Other ideas include a deck of cards, a puzzle book, or a fun little toy (a Slinky?).
- Clothing or blankets. This will make your goody bags a little bulkier, so it's up to you. I've heard that men's jeans in average sizes (32/34), warm blankets, and winter coats are always appreciated items. These items could be used as long as they're clean and in good condition. It might be easier just to drop them off at a homeless organization, however, which would allow for more targeted distribution.
- Extras. We threw in a little pocket flashlight (bought in bulk on eBay). Seems useful, yes? Other ideas might be a notepad and pen, an extra Sharpie for writing new begging signs (ha!)
- Advocacy items. If you have any pamphlets from local homeless organizations in your area directing people to places they can get help, you could include those. These might be resources for shelter locations, job assistance training, transitional housing, substance abuse counseling, low-cost health clinics, food banks, soup kitchens, etc.
We made some lady-specific bags to hand out to women. This is not a necessary step, but it helped me use up some feminine doodahs I was trying to get rid of anyway as I move toward reusable menstrual products, for instance, and try to clean out my incredible array of travel-size toiletries I never, ever actually use. (By the way, you need to pronounce the last syllable in "feminine" in that sentence to sound like the number nine to get the full effect of what's in my brain. You're welcome.)
If you do make women-specific bags, I would recommend making more of the gender-neutral or men-specific ones, unless you know for sure you'll encounter a lot of women in need of them.
The only thing different in the women's bags is the addition of some menstrual products, some toiletry samples I keep meaning to use but never do but that are actually pretty nice, women's socks instead of or along with the men's, and, since we had books, some more female-centric novels à la Bridget Jones here.
If you know you'll be encountering a specific population, you could tailor your bags to that group. For instance, if you volunteer with families, you might add kid-specific items like little toys or children's clothing.
How do kids get involved?
All of these ideas will vary depending on the age of your kids, but even toddlers could start doing some of the basics. Older kids might be very interested, especially if they're aware of panhandlers or homeless people they see sleeping on the streets and want to understand and do something. Often it's the youngest and poorest among us who are the most generous, so let them teach you as you enter this project together.
- Take your kids shopping for the items that go in the bags. Let them make some of the choices or pick out varieties (say, what kind of fruit cup or what color socks).
- Solicit help with sorting and bagging the items. It can even be a fun lesson in patterns or counting for young kids. (E.g., Each bag gets two red granola bars and one yellow.) Let older kids arrange some of the unique items in a way that seems logical and pleasing to them.
- Use this whole experience as a springboard to conversations about how some of us have families and homes and some of us don't. You can talk about responsibilities and compassion, and ask (older kids, especially) what they think about the subject (and listen to the answers!). Point out that many homeless people are not the ones we see on the streets, and they include families with young children just like yours. If you just ignore panhandlers, you might inadvertently teach your kids a value of disregarding need, unless you discuss the nuances of the situation, as they are able to understand. Here are a few links with ideas for talking with children about homelessness:
- How to talk to your children about poverty and homelessness from BabyCenter
- Tips for talking to kids about homelessness and Easy ways your family can help end homelessness from United Way
- How to talk to your kids about homelessness from Education.com
- Talking with children about homeless people from Dayton Children's
- You might need to study up first on the truth of homelessness before helping your kids learn. Find out some facts for yourself, and then pass on the facts to your kids — or help them discover them themselves — as they can handle it. Here are some factsheets from the National Coalition for the Homeless for the United States.
- Why are people homeless? — Sometimes people choose not to pay for the added expense of a home if other financial needs are more pressing, particularly when there are factors like lack of affordable housing, lack of affordable healthcare, and lack of low-wage jobs that pay a living wage. Minimum wage is not enough to afford a basic rental in any U.S. state (according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has yearly PDF reports on homelessness).
- How many people experience homelessness? — You'll find interesting statistics here, such as that most people are homeless for only a temporary period. You'll also learn about some of the challenges of quantifying homelessness, because, for instance, families often try to lodge with other family members or friends rather than in shelters, which can make the numbers hard to count.
- Who is homeless? — In 2003, children under the age of 18 accounted for 39% of the homeless population, and 42% of these children were under 5 years old. Single homeless adults are more likely to be male, but adults in homeless families are more likely to be female, particularly if they're fleeing domestic violence. There are statistics on ethnicity, showing the effects of race on poverty and homelessness, and on the incidence of mental illness and substance abuse.
- If your children want to get more involved, why not throw in your lot as a family! Volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter, buy duplicates of favorite foods on your next shopping trip together to donate to a food pantry, or start a coat and blanket drive in your neighborhood. A personal way children might like to get involved is by going through their toys, books, stuffed animals, and clothing and picking out ones they would like to pass along — then find a homeless organization in your community that works with families to drop off your children's donation in person.
Next stepsAfter you've made your goody bags, you have some choices. Most people keep one or two in the car within easy arm's reach. Then, if you ease up to a stoplight and someone holds up a sign outside your window, you can roll your window down and hand out one of your gift packs with a smile.
If you'd like to raise money and help the homeless at the same time, you can do what another group at our old church did and sell the bags to a larger group (the church congregation, in that case), using the money raised to contribute to a good cause (say, to give to a local homeless ministry). That's where we got the idea in the first place — from buying a few of the goody bags they had made and enjoying the process of handing them out.
As you hand out your bags, you get to make even more choices. Do you engage in conversation with the people you're giving them out to? Do you find out their stories and solicit feedback on whether raisins are really appreciated or whether candy would have been a bigger hit? Do you look more closely in your community for people who undoubtedly could use goody bags (or more) and tailor your gifts to that group? Do you get to know a local organization helping the homeless and ask for advice and mentoring as you enter into a new world? Does making these bags jumpstart a new phase of volunteering and advocacy for you and your family?
So many possibilities! Enjoy the (often complicated and sometimes heartbreaking) journey, and may the people who reach out to take your goody bags receive them with joy as you give them with an open heart.
How have you volunteered with your children, or how would you like to? What perspectives on homelessness do you want to pass on to your children?
P.S. My apologies for the polemic. I honestly meant to write a couple paragraphs about what to put in a bag, post the pictures, and run. My mother-in-law's in town, and I've had little time for blogging, and I still have all the (inspiring!) Carnival of Natural Parenting entries to read through (posting on Tuesday — stay tuned). I ended up staying up till 6 (?!) in the morning working on this last night (this morning) FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON. So I'm done editing it down and making it less or more than it is, and that's how it goes. I'm sorry if I came off as either callous or preachy — or maybe clueless about privilege (and how many of readers are as privileged as I am). For instance, a sociology class at college used to do a 48-hour experiment in homelessness where students would experience shelter living and panhandling firsthand for a week, but I couldn't think of how to adapt that to families without making it seem like some sort of pointless camping adventure. My head kind of explodes when I think about homelessness because it's so hard, and there's isn't one good "solution." It's hard to get everything into one post, yes?
P.P.S. My apologies for the apology.
P.P.P.S. For someone who named her blog after hobos, I sure do have a lot of hangups about the issue.