“Have you ever come across a homeless individual and felt totally uncomfortable?
You see them and you know they are in need, but you are not sure what to do. You know that handing them money is not the best thing. But, you also see that they clearly have some needs. Their lips are chapped. They are hungry. They are thirsty. They are asking for help.
How can you help?
Here is a simple idea - blessing bags.
This was such an easy project. We are now going to keep a few “Blessing Bags” in our car so that when we do happen to see someone on the streets who is homeless, we can hand them a Blessing Bag. I first learned of these bags from my friend, Julie. I am using the picture of her bags (see above) because the ones we took were taken in horrible lighting and turned out really grainy and hard to see what is inside of them.
If you’d like to make your own Blessing Bags, this is what you would need:
Gallon size Ziplock bags
items to go in the bags, such as:
packages of tissues
toothbrush and toothpaste
pack of gum
coins (could be used to make a phone call, or purchase a food item)
you could also put in a warm pair of socks, and maybe a Starbucks gift card
Assemble all the items in the bags, and maybe throw in a note of encouragement. Seal the bags and stow in your car for a moment of providence.
This would be a great activity to do with some other families. Each family could bring one of the items going into the bags (ex: toothbrushes). Set up all the items around a table and walk around it with the ziplocks and fill the bags.”
Hey, words from an actual former homeless person here.
Those people you see who make you uncomfortable? Those aren’t homeless people, they’re beggars. Well, some of them are also homeless. Some of them are not. NOT ALL HOMELESS PEOPLE ARE BEGGARS. (Also, they’re not all addicts, though some are. You literally know nothing about a beggar’s life except that they are beggars.)
Beggars have a uniform like any other kind of worker. They have to look as bedraggled and dirty and pathetic as possible. If you gave a beggar a chance to shower and wash their clothes, you would be damaging their earning potential. They make their money by manipulating the feelings of people who don’t know much about poverty. That means they have to play to stereotypes, some of which are like a hundred years out of date.
When I was homeless, I did not beg. (I stole, dealt with charities, sometimes even worked. Yes, you can be homeless with a full-time job. I’ve worked 60 hours a week and been homeless. And I mean sleeping in a car or a tent homeless, not on somebody’s couch homeless, though that’s an under-counted form of homelessness. I asked for food once or twice, but I didn’t look like a beggar.) I kept myself clean. I looked like anyone else. That person you pass in the store, on the bus, someone who looks just like anyone else, they could be homeless. The sales clerk who helps you for minimum wage. They could have lost their apartment because you can’t pay rent on that salary.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with begging. And it’s true that some people do actually just look like that because due to mental illness or addiction they sincerely can’t take care of themselves. Some of them are honestly nothing more than scam artists who have no real need, though, playing off people’s sympathy for those who genuinely do need help. But let’s assume that you were giving these to an actual homeless person.
- soap is not that difficult to come by if you are so inclined to have/use it. Many public bathrooms have it. Homeless shelters will give you a bar of it. If you have $10 or so for a truck stop shower, soap is provided. Running water is a lot more difficult.
- believe it or not, they may already have a toothbrush and toothpaste, and if they don’t, it’s unlikely they have any interest in using them. Homeless people commonly cache useful items wrapped in plastic in a bunch of hidden places. If you want to help the homeless, next time you find one of those caches, don’t throw them away. I mean, think about it. If you had to start living on the street, would you stop brushing your teeth? I didn’t either. Plus, if everyone gave homeless people one of these packs, they’d have more toothbrushes than they did teeth. Same with the deodorant—one stick lasts a long time, and they give them to you in shelters. This kind of mismanagement and waste is incredibly frustrating. People are willing to flush money down the toilet to avoid helping you TOO much.
- food is nice! But keep in mind that not everyone can eat stuff you give them. Dietary restrictions like diabetes and Crohn’s unfortunately don’t go away when you become homeless. Maybe this is why they were hoping for cash? Also, some (though not all) homeless people have access to food already through food stamps, soup kitchens, charities, etc. A granola bar is nice, but they likely have other problems. If they need food, they will usually have a sign asking for food, or ask for it verbally! Otherwise food might not be a problem for them.
- I’ve given medicine to beggars when it was asked for. Medicine can be super useful if you have a need of it. But when you don’t have a place to put your shit, you realize what a luxury it is to be able to store shit you don’t need at the moment. At best, it could go into one of those caches, if that individual uses caches, or into a shopping cart if they haul one of those around. Or in a car if they have one.
You know what’s useful, lightweight, and portable? MONEY.
You know what money can be used for?
- the nightly fee of some pay-shelters to keep you out of the elements.
- minutes for a pay-as-you-go phone, which can be used for emergencies, scheduling appointments with therapists, doctors, and addiction counselors, even searching for jobs or housing. There is a TON of bureaucracy involved in getting help when you have nothing, and that shit burns through your minutes. Payphones? What is this, 1980? I still have and use a phone I bought while living in my car. It was $10.
- gas for a car, if they have one. (Commoner in rural areas.)
- a hot shower at a truck stop.
- medicine, including prescription medication.
- items that protect against the elements, in their size!
- transportation. News flash, no bus will let you on for pocket change.
- items you might not even think of, like pet food (some homeless people have pets!) sanitary napkins (even if they don’t look female—remember how the homeless rates go up if you’re queer? Yeah.) condoms (possibly for sex work? Not something you want to assume though!) diapers (adult or otherwise! seriously! You don’t know their lives!) or pretty much anything else THAT IS BOUGHT AND SOLD WITH MONEY.
Does that include cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol? You bet it does. But you know what, if that’s what they need, you’re in no position to judge. I’ve never been through withdrawal, but I’ve seen people go through it, and it’s complete shit. If that were you, yeah, you wouldn’t want to get drug sick, are you fucking kidding me? Offset it with a contribution to a rehab center, whatever helps you sleep at night.
And all this is assuming the person giving you a case of the guilts is actually homeless. When they may not be. And other people you don’t notice around you almost surely are.
That uncomfortable feeling you get, though? That has a name. It’s called INEQUALITY. It means that you know you have shit other people don’t have access to. You probably have resources so that even if you were in trouble, there’d be safety nets. You have the kind of money that you can buy a bunch of care packages to assuage this horrible guilt you feel every time you’re in bed in the rain and you know someone else out there isn’t. Those feelings are right. The world shouldn’t be this unequal. We shouldn’t have houses standing empty while people live on the street. We shouldn’t have food sitting in warehouses till it spoils while people starve. We shouldn’t be punishing people for trying to medicate away the pain we gave them.
If you want to REALLY help the poor, go buy a pen and paper and write to your representatives. Stop blaming “generational welfare users” for being “leeches on the system.” Tell them you want to see real aid going to people in your community. Tell them to fund the mental health system, which is inadequate for the demand and constantly getting slashed. Tell them you don’t want to see food stamps cut for bad grades! Tell them a stitch in time saves nine, and if they helped people who were losing their homes, maybe there wouldn’t be so many homeless. Tell them to decriminalize drug use and prostitution. Tell them to support programs like Insite. Support universal healthcare, because you’d be surprised how many people end up homeless due to illness, either in themselves or a family member. If you’re ever in a position of power, such as a landlord or employer, don’t discriminate against people who don’t have a current address. Also don’t discriminate against marginalized groups by race, gender, orientation, ability, etc. These people are more likely to end up homeless because of this BS. Check out charities in your area doing actual outreach with the poor, many of whom are not beggars and not visible. And if you’re going to give a beggar something, either ask them what they need or just give them fucking money.
You can’t make that uncomfortable feeling go away with the wave of a magic wand. You can’t buy exemption from the fact that you HAVE and others DON’T with some soap and granola.