I am now at the half way point managing the church winter night shelter at Ferndale Baptist Church and so far so good. It has been a worthwhile project, notwithstanding all sorts of minor to middling incidents, which I always knew would be part and parcel of such an enterprise, which I do along with my other homeless involvements.
One of the amazing things I am finding is the generosity of folk when it comes to giving their time to directly help the homeless and offering help in kind, like providing food and clothes, about which there are a number of practical considerations. The operation to match provision with rough sleepers needs can be a hit and miss one, and not altogether efficient, not that should stop us, as those who are on the receiving end tend to be appreciative, not just by these material offerings but by the love underpinning the giving.
Given the explosive rise in food banks and soup kitchens as well as night shelters, the need to get food cheaply is an important one. Some of the food outlets (large and small) have been very generous in this regard although the issue of not being able to part with food past its sell by day, despite being edible, is a poignant one. People and shops do donate but sometimes it is not the food wanted or needed – and then there are issues around collection, storage and distribution. My take is different outfits are on the way to solving some of these challenges but there is work to be done. For some rough sleepers without money, being able to regularly access free food is important, which is why locally the provision of the likes of HARP, the Storehouse, Family Mosaic, Soup 4 Southend, Salvation Army, St. Andrews Open House and Street Spirit etc. is welcomed.
The other issue is around clothes, sleeping gear (blankets and sleeping bags) and toiletries, and sometimes tents and rucksacks. People do give but always there is the challenge of matching what is being given to the needs of the potential beneficiaries. I feel a bit churlish sometimes when I turn down offer on the grounds my own operation is not suitably geared up. Instead I direct people to larger operations (in Southend, this is typically HARP and the Storehouse) and also with the instructions to think practical, in terms of what is needed when it comes to picking up, storing and distributing stuff.
I often say, ask what would you need if sleeping rough and given you may only be able to carry so much around on your person, and bear in mind rough sleepers weigh less as a whole than the rest of the population. I always say, be generous but be realistic and practical. Ideally we would like to match stuff with need, bearing in mind some but not all rough sleepers have money e.g. as a result of benefits to buy less costly essentials. Things that come to mind clothes wise are trousers, shirts, jumpers and coats (according to the season), men and women’s underwear and socks, ladies sanitary items, sturdy outdoor footwear (some do a lot of walking), etc. And for many, washing clothes and shower facilities may be limited.
Sadly, there is the question of some who will take advantage of your generosity and this is one of the reasons why some who have been in the giving out business for some time do place restrictions and exercise caution when handing out. There will be some who spend there money on unnecessary things, especially when it comes to drugs and alcohol and target do gooder types to fund their life choices. There are others who have a nose for a bargain and collect stuff especially nice clothes (and some items people give are very nice) to sell on. Yet others that take a whatever they get, e.g. coat or sleeping bag, only to soon after discard. Therefore be wise.
Which brings me to one other practicality – how can we help rough sleepers with storing their gear? Again I ask, how would you cope if you were forced into a position of having to carry your worldly possessions around on your person? You may be surprised how people get round this, not always satisfactorily. A modern version of the old fashioned left luggage office comes to mind, but as they say, coming up with practical solutions remains work in progress, but important even so, given we need to be about affirming the dignity of our rough sleeper friends and finding ways to seriously help.