Homeless families really suffer in the Bay area. It’s expensive to live here and if parents need child care so they can work, it’s nearly impossible. Add to that women and children who become homeless due to domestic violence and, well, the problem is staggering. And not just in my city.
So the other day we packed up three boxes of toiletries, new sweatshirts, gloves and other things for children and adults and brought them over to a charity that serves homeless families. We like this nonprofit because its effective in returning homeless people to long-term self-sufficiency.
The drop-off point is a secure, woman-only facility (read ‘domestic violence shelter’) so M unloaded the boxes and I dragged them through the front door. As I stood waiting for a receipt, I talked with one of the staffers about the holidays.
“How many kids are in residence and are they taken care of for Christmas?” I asked. She explained that 20 children were currently in residence and that some families were “adopted” for Christmas and others were not, especially those that came in closer to Christmas Day. Besides, “adoption,” the organization provides holiday meal gift baskets.
Will these families have a happy holiday?
“We don’t want any family to go without a holiday,” I told her, “so let us fill the gap. Even if it’s last minute we can take care of Christmas for some of those families that haven’t been adopted.” Walking back to the car I thought about those families. I could almost feel their sadness and how hopeless this holiday season must feel.
Explaining the situation to Michael I started to cry. “Imagine what we could do if we had fu ** k you money,” I said through my tears. (If you don’t know, fu *** k you money insulates you so much you can tell anyone to fu *** k off, especially cranky employers. Of course, being retired, I haven’t anyone to say FO to, but I like the concept of having that much freedom.)
My husband started the car, and then casually asked, “Why don’t we take the money we were going to spend on the big summer trip we just started planning and donate it?”
My eyes widened. “All of it?” This was not a small amount of money.
“All of it,” he said. “I consider the money spent already, so why not? It would feel obscene to take yet another big trip with the country in this awful place and people suffering.”
My hard-working husband allows himself few luxuries, but one is first-class vacations. We had planned to take two weeks in the UK this August. I really wanted to go. In fact, it was my idea.
But I wanted these families to have a happy holiday more.
“Ok,” said. “Let’s do it.”
Instantly I began thinking about the best way for the families to get maximum benefit out of our donation.
As a warm-up, I donated some money for boarding of a sweet dog that a homeless man could no longer take care of. A Good Samaritan in my town had been helping the man but it was clear that he could no longer care for his dog. He signed the dog over to her and it was being boarded while she found the dog a forever home. With her permission, I called the vet and put some money on account. I did that in remembrance of our Little He, Tinker, Puddin’ and all of our very lucky pets on both sides of the Rainbow Bridge, including Riley. Then I was ready to do the big stuff.
The need is great
I spoke with a manager at the homeless services agency about what families might need. She also pointed out that no one ever adopted single people who have been placed in independent housing, and that broke my heart. I suggested that we reconnect when she had a better idea of who was not going to get adopted and that we’d fill that gap then. (After all, I wanted others to have a chance to feel good by donating holiday items, too!)
At the time of our call, the two-county agency had some 150 people who were not going to have the fixings for a holiday meal or a present. Some 35 were families housed in shelters. We discussed the kind of gift cards domestic violence victims needed and she told me that many left their homes quickly without underwear or shoes. A gift card to Walmart or Target would go a long way to providing the basic necessities they were forced to leave behind.
It was a sobering conversation, but also a joyous one. I knew we could help make a happy holiday for these folks and that the agency was working hard to help them regain their footing. It seemed like so little for such a big problem, but it was the best we all could do. In a world of increasing hatred, we could still put a little kindness out there.
And so can you.
What you can do in your own community
I am certain that there are similar organizations and people with the same kind of needs in your community. And I know you want a way to lend a hand. It’s not too late. Even just a little will help. So here are some ideas:
Call domestic violence agencies or organizations helping the homeless and ask what they need.
Coffee mugs, glasses, towels, dishes are all helpful for those going into transitional housing. These don’t have to be new, but they do have to be in good condition.
Gift cards in any amount for a Walmart, Target or K-Mart will allow parents to buy necessities or holiday gifts for children. Our agency likes to get cards in amounts no larger than $30 or $35.
A bunch of coloring books and crayons, puzzles and toys for toddlers are always appreciated. So are diaper and baby supplies–they’ll be used, no fear.
Buy some new climate- appropriate casual wear: sweatshirts, t-shirts, gloves, scarves, hats are always useful for homeless agencies to give out.
I went through my closet for coats, jackets and appropriate clothes–new or in very good condition–good stuff–that I wasn’t going to wear. Shoes in almost-new condition are also welcomed.
A holiday meal gift basket of non-perishables: canned yams and green beans, canned gravy and cranberries, packaged dinner rolls, a sack of potatoes, apple cider, a roasting pan, holiday napkins and plates and a $20 gift card for turkey and dessert is an awesome donation. Nothing perishable.
Things to avoid: junk food, junk food gift cards, coffee cards, perishables.
Oh, did I mention that this is SO MUCH FUN? It really is! In fact, giving is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
For those who don’t know, M and I were college sweethearts who married young and divorced after 9 years. We were apart 26 years and then reunited and remarried. It’s been seven years now and we’ve had a beautiful second marriage.
I’m pretty sure that the Universe got us back together to challenge us to be our best selves. I suspect M has been more successful at that than I have. I’m still a work in progress. But giving? M’s got that one down pat.
“Are you trying to buy a seat in heaven?” I asked him with a laugh.
“Just making sure there’s not one waiting in hell,” he said.
Later, telling my late girlfriend’s daughter about it, she responded, “I don’t think M. has to worry about getting a seat in heaven. My mom’s saving one for him.”
And so this is Christmas, just like John Lennon sang. Want to hear the song before you start your holiday help for the homeless? Here it is.