From time to time, crazy notions cross my mind and while I acknowledge those thoughts are often not fully developed, I can’t dismiss them altogether. For want of better articulation, in this case it is about “stuff” that people care to donate that homeless people might be appreciative of (or not) and how that can be sensibly given out to where the needs are. By “stuff”, I can only refer to items mentioned in the past week on social media and other means of communication – sleeping bags, blankets, left over food, socks, size x boots, tampons, toiletries, often symbolic of people’s generosity – the list is nigh endless! The reality is not all stuff can be used for all sorts of reason and a lot of useful stuff ends up being thrown away.
What has become evident is that we are in a paradigm once again where there is stuff people can no longer use and they want to do something useful with it. The obvious answer, and one many find for themselves, is to give it to charity. The springing up of charity shops all over the place is evidence of this, although the focus as far as most charities are concerned is it is an effective means to generate much needed revenue. But the principle can be and is being extended, for example regarding food banks and for the more ingenious a means to bring needed goods to the homes of those without the means to pay. Maybe the logical extension is that people can get stuff and be able to repay in kind! Since getting involved in homeless issues in recent years, I have been increasingly mindful of those who want to help in this way and yet at the same time seen some of pitfalls, like rows among distributors, nervous breakdowns of those wanting to help, wastage among those this is meant to benefit, corruption by those wanting to make a fast buck by selling on and pocketing the proceeds from what people have so generously donated, all sorts of flaws in the distribution of stuff, and there is always red tape to contend with, notably regarding food.
My impression is that while there are many outlets covering various aspects of the need to match donated stuff with those who will derive greatest benefit, and without wanting to be more controversial than I am already, I find the present situation confused and ad hoc. I may be right and I may be wrong, and based on my incomplete knowledge, which even so is more complete than most, I refer homeless folk to one of the many outlets in the town, typically referred to in the Rough Sleeper Leaflet I have a hand in maintaining. When it comes to more specific items (but not sleeping bags), I refer them to HARP or the Storehouse, mindful that, notwithstanding, a number will not engage with either organization.
Regarding the several pies I have a finger in, I feel while we are meeting a need and doing some good, we have not cracked it in the way I would like and maybe we never will. One of the challenges for the night shelter I happen to manage is how to manage the logistics of handling stuff our homeless guests might be able to use, the willingness of people to donate, the storage issue and the challenges around wise distribution. Similarly, with another pie, we are finding in Street Spirit there is the potential to mount a major operation around passing on stuff but are mindful of our limitations. As recently as last Saturday we had a number of grateful customers, but there is the question of what we do and how we do it? As an amusing, trivial yet relevant, example, I was grateful when some kind soul passed onto me a number of sleeping bags we always need, which unbeknown to me weren’t washed. As the unknown pong from the back of my car intensified during the week, causing family friction until we realized what was happening, it made me think there is another side to good intentions, and this needs managing.
I am pretty sure that what I am saying is what others have been thinking but haven’t felt brave enough to say. Yet there is a constant need for stuff of all sorts, for operations that are often run on a shoe string, relying on the good will of volunteers to bring in a result. I hope perhaps this might at least get people thinking about the potential of passing on stuff to where it is most needed and the best way to go about it. But also, isn’t it heartwarming that so many do want to go out of their way to give to where the needs really are?