It’s that time of year again when we are collecting up things to give to people who are homeless. Gloves, mittens, hats, scarves, sleeping bags.
Here. Doing a little urban camping right now? Here’s a nice blanket. I sound cynical. I’m not really, I’m just questioning this approach.
The other day, someone tied new scarves around lamp posts in a downtown park with a card inviting people who needed a scarf to take one. I love that. I love all charity. I love giving things to people who need them, no questions asked. I do two donation drives myself. One is called Time of the Month Club. Conducted in the fall, I, along with a network of other women, collect a ton of feminine hygiene products for distribution to women in shelters. Sox Rox is what it sounds like, a sock drive for men, women and children who are homeless, generally run mid-winter. New socks for people who need them. Tampax for women without a way to deal with their periods. I love doing these two drives. It’s not the world’s hugest deal, but it’s something. Just straight charity. No overhead. No eligibility requirements. Someone needs. They get.
So the Christmas elves are gearing up now and the push is on for offices and organizations to organize mini-drives to come up with cold weather supplies for people who are homeless. In Milwaukee, the drives are connected to doing the Point in Time Count in late January of people who are homeless, a requirement of the federal government and an important data collection effort for local planning. In the Point in Time, volunteers count people in shelters and transitional housing and then find ways to count unsheltered people. That’s where the donations come in. Cold weather gear serves as both a reward and an enticement for people living on the street to participate in the count. So I’m all for it. It’s great.
But what about a different way of thinking about office donation drives? What if, instead of rounding up fifty winter hats, staff sat down and had a serious discussion about how to create a single job for a person who is homeless, a person who likely has long term problems including possibly addiction, alcoholism, mental illness or physical health problems. How could a person who is homeless with many different challenges be offered a place in an organization, a function, a job, an income. And with the place would come what benefits for the person who is homeless?
Here are the things that occur to me: a sense of being welcomed into mainstream society, a little fuel for self-respect, a chance to remember old skills and learn new ones, new people to know and talk to, getting reeled in from the far margins of society. Not being invisible.
We can do better than hats and scarves. Big organizations can find room in their budgets for one job for one person who is homeless. Small organizations can pair up and think of ways to get just one person working. Just one. Not the whole homeless population. Just one. Not a complicated job, a simple job that a person could walk into and develop as his/her confidence and capacity increased, a job that could be what goes on a resume that’s been blank for years. A job that makes a person who is homeless think s/he could do other things – like get treatment, join a recovery community, find safe housing, get a better job. A job that tells a person who is homeless: there is a place for you inside.
Tell me one reason we can’t do this.