Introduction: Helping the Homeless on a Budget
I work on a very busy corner in L.A. with a significant homeless population in the neighborhood. There's a particular guy with a small dog who is always in front of the same restaurant, and every time I passed him I'd think "I should really give him something". The other day I saw him again, and decided it was time to stop thinking and start doing. I made a quick shopping trip and bought him Nutri-Grain bars, water, Chapstick, a new T-shirt, and a few pouches of food for his dog.
When I presented him with the bag, he was so happy and grateful to receive these really basic items. He was well spoken, friendly, clear headed; just a normal guy you'd meet on the streets and not at all the "scary" or "crazy" perception most people have of the homeless. It felt wrong that people like this should lack basic comforts, so when he mentioned that he has a lot of homeless friends in the area who are also struggling, I decided to grow my efforts.
The concept of care packages for the homeless is not an original idea of mine, however, I've been surprised how many people are hearing about it for the first time from me. In the interest of spreading this effort to other communities, the following Ible is a How To for anyone interested in helping their local homeless, but unsure where to start.I've included budget friendly tips as to what makes a useful and enjoyable care package, some insights about your recipients which may inform your product choices, suggested ways of garnering donations, and lastly, how to get the goods out to the people who need them! You can give someone an amazing gift bag for $5-$10 per person --less than what most people blow on their daily coffee fix.
Step 1: Give Yourself a Deadline
Create a firm deadline for your project!
Give yourself a date these have to be ready to go. If you just indefinitely hoard goodies for the "right time" without a plan for distribution, you'll end up with heaps of stuff in your house and having done no real good.
I made my goal on or before x-mas eve, allowing me 2 weeks to shop or gather donations.
Step 2: Hygeine Items
The following are some ideas for what you might include in a care pack. Don't feel like you have to include everything on this list to make a worthy care package. 1-2 toiletry items is great, 3 and above is awesome!
Travel size toiletries are a great basic component for any homeless folk care package and there's a lot to choose from. Toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, lotion, lip balm, etc. If you're on a budget and can only put in 1 or 2 products, imagine yourself in the recipient's shoes and think about what you would like to get. Would you most enjoy brushing your teeth, or would you rather have soap to wash up when you are afforded the opportunity and privacy? This is also a good opportunity to clean your cabinets of all the hotel samples you've been swiping while on vacation that you never actually get around to using.
Toothpaste --Look for travel kits that include both a toothbrush and toothpaste tube as that is usually the best way to stretch your money. I founds sets at the dollar store which include a carrying pouch and toothbrush cover.
Shampoo or Bodywash --While a homeless person may not have the opportunity to use these everyday for lack of access to a shower, these are still great options. Should a person have the time, resources, and privacy to bathe(perhaps at a shelter or a friend's home), I would imagine nothing in the world would feel better than fresh clean hair and skin. Consider giving someone the treat of what most of us take for granted every day. I recommend bottled body wash over bar soap since it is contained and easier to transport for multiple uses.
Hand Sanitizer --Good for cleaning hands or sterilizing other items on the go. Your most budget friendly options will probably smell like straight up alcohol, but if you're able to find scented sanitizers I highly recommend getting them. A pleasant scent adds an extra layer of enjoyment to your gift for a person who likely doesn't get to use anything but the most basic of products.
Deodorant -- Travel size sticks are easy to carry in a pocket, and may help the person feel fresher between bathing opportunities.
Lip Balm or Lotion --Winter weather dries out our skin, causing us to bust out the Chapstick and hand lotion more often. The other day I noticed how dry and tight my lips felt after a walk outside. I started thinking about how uncomfortable it must be to have no remedy for this, and how constant exposure probably just compounds the issue. Basic moisturizing chapstick or travel size hand lotion can keep a person's skin looking and feeling healthier. A person who looks healthy and approachable is more likely to be treated favorably (whether we are consciously making that decision or not), and stands to do a bit better if collecting donations or interviewing for a job.
Travel packs of Tissue or Wet Wipes --These have multiple applications for cleanliness and hygiene. Tissues are especially handy in the event a person gets sick and needs to blow their nose. I know I hate being without tissue when I'm sick.
Tampons or Sanitary Pads -- An often forgotten but very much needed item. Every woman has probably had an experience where her period arrived a day early and she was unprepared. Most of us are a mere quarter away from addressing the issue, or can grab something from our bathroom cabinet. A homeless woman is at a great disadvantage when it comes to that time of the month. She may not have that quarter. She may not feel comfortable going in to a store to buy sanitary products because of how people treat her. She may not have fresh garments to change into if she can't address the issue in time. Providing a few sanitary products in your care package may not cover a woman's entire cycle, but it will give her the dignity of cleanliness every person deserves until she can find a bigger supply.
Step 3: Food Items
The main priorities when selecting food items for your care packages are 1) Portability and 2) Healthiness. A significant portion of the homeless population suffers from tooth decay and diabetes. Choosing snacks that are a level above the super sugary dollar store offerings is doing a person a better service.
Water --an obvious staple. Bottled water is portable and has multiple applications, though it can be a bit heavy.
Juice Boxes --I like to include these in my care packages because it's flavorful and different from the water many homeless people can probably get for free in restaurants. If possible, go for something that says 100% juice to hopefully cut down the sugar factor.
Granola or Energy Bars --Highly portable, satisfying, not bad for you as snacking goes. Protein bars would also be great, though typically more expensive. Thanks to a friend's generous donation, I was able to include 3 granola bars in each package.
Beef Jerky -- Protein is probably the food group homeless folks have the least access to, but our bodies need it. Jerky offers a portable, shelf stable protein option that easily fits in a care package.
Yogurt or Squeeze Fruit Pouches --portable and tasty, though probably only very cost-effective if purchased in bulk. Shop around and see where you can get the best deal.
Gum -- Including a classic mint gum in your care package allows a person to freshen up periodically and also helps to generate saliva that will help keep teeth healthier. Just make sure you don't get something heavily sugared that would counteract your intent!
Step 4: Warmth and Comfort
Love the feel of a brand new cozy pair of socks? Who doesn't?? A new pair of socks, gloves, or a scarf can provide much needed warmth and protection for someone on the street. Bonus points if you find some in super fuzzy material, because that just makes people happy.
Socks --I once read an article in which a homeless man said the most wonderful feeling in the world was a fresh pair of socks. The best bang for your buck is buying multipacks. The dollar store I went to offered these soft mens' athletic socks 2pr/ $1. Regardless of who you expect might receive the care package, I suggest always buying mens sizes. People will smaller feet will still make them work or can layer them on top of current socks.
*Tip: If you're on a budget, opt for socks over gloves. Tube socks can be worn on the hands as mittens, if the person prefers to warm their hands, but gloves can't fit on your feet!
Gloves --Basic stretch gloves are great, especially in colder climates. Make sure you're buying adult sizes. I almost got suckered in by soft bright colors and fuzzy materials before realizing the "fun" ones are all tiny and meant for kids.
Scarves -- Versatile and can be made at home on the cheap with polar fleece yardage. If you have a rotary fabric cutter, this is literally a 10 minute project.
T-shirt --a simple T-shirt can provide a layer of warmth and also make a person feel happier and cleaner. The gift of a new T-shirt may allow someone who has been wearing the same, stained, shredded clothing for a long time to finally have something new and more effective. On a budget? Go through your closet and clear out all those freebie/ promo T-shirts you receive at events but will never wear again. Thanks to Instructables runners' up prize packs, I have more robot T-shirt than there are days of the week. Throughout the year I intentionally ordered different sizes so that I would have a variety to offer for this project. I kept my favorite colors in my size and put the rest in care packages for other people to enjoy.
Hand Warmer Packs -- Consider including these, especially if your region reaches very low temperatures. Even with two pairs of gloves on, midwest winters can still manage to make your fingers ache. One time use hand warmer packs can help someone get through an especially rough night, and can be tucked into a boot or inside a coat to warm whatever is most needed.
Step 5: First Aid
In the interest of keeping this light and portable, this section will not be a full-on first aid kit. Rather, this will address the most basic of ailments and injuries that someone can self treat.
Basic Bandages --I prefer fabric bandages since they are a bit more resistant to peeling if they get wet. Throwing a few bandages in your pack will give the person something to use next time they get a simple cut or scratch, helping to prevent infection.
Common OTC Medicines --These might include Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Antacid tablets, Cough Drops, Motrin, etc. The thought is that if a person as a headache, cold, or other minor ailment, they don't have to suffer through it. This is not intended to be a substitute for real medical attention, just a means of making someone's life suck a tiny bit less. Multipacks of OTC medicines can be purchased at office supply places like Staples, and would normally be used for office first aid kits. Buying this way is ideal because the meds come prepackaged in individual doses, so you can easily divide the stock amongst many care packages.
*When on a budget, spread your resources around. Don't feel like you have to give every person an entire medicine cabinet. In each of my packs, I included 2 types of medicine, 2 band-aids, and a cough drop. PMS relief packets went into the women's packs, and everything else was just random. If you've got a lot of packages circulating, hopefully people can trade with each other for what they need most.
Step 6: Sourcing Donations (optional)
If it would be difficult for your to fund these care packages on your own, consider getting other sources involved.
Friends, Family, and Co-Workers --A well worded announcement that you are doing this project will make people feel invited to contribute, rather than obligated. If your supervisor allows it, post a flyer in the office kitchen letting people know about your project, and how they can connect with you if they want to get involved. I made a post on Facebook announcing my plan and simply said anyone who wants to contribute to the effort is welcome to do so. People were excited about the idea of doing something good, and several colleagues and friends made donations of food, toiletries, or cash for me to make another dollar store trip.
Local Stores --Approaching local grocery stores is worth a shot, though the results are hit and miss. You can ask to speak with a manager and tell them about your care packages. Tell them you'd be grateful for any shelf stable food or toiletry items that they are about to get rid of. Most of the stuff headed to the dumpster (like spoiled produce or meats) obviously won't be viable for your packages, but once in a while the timing is right and you can score something handy. If the Freebie Gods don't smile on you, check the clearance cart for toiletries like toothpaste that are about to "expire" (even though they're still fine) and nab them for super cheap.
Corporations -- Unfortunately, you won't have much luck here unless you are part of an official 5013c charity. Most corporations have strict guidelines for donations or have designated charity groups they do annual business with, and will send you a polite "no" response. I emailed several P&G and Unilever brands and was not terribly surprised that all declined to contribute. If you have a personal connection to a brand, like a relative that works for the company, you may have better luck than I did. Generally, I'd say writing to large companies is worth a shot, but do not hinge your project on their cooperation. Do this because YOU want to do it.
Step 7: Preparing Packages for Distribution
Once you have your items selected, you'll need to bundle them together for easy distribute to recipients. Different packaging options offer varied benefits. Consider your budget and the weather in your area to choose the best solution.
Large Ziplocs -- Waterproof and compact, but no handle for easy carrying. Fortunately, this keeps things at a manageable size to be tucked into a person's existing bags. I recommend gallon size bags --no smaller.
Plastic Grocery Bags --Easy to carry and free (unless you live in CA where they're off limits now) but thin plastic may tear easily over time.
Re-useable Tote Bag -- You may be able to purchase these cheaply in quantity. Durable and handy even after all your goodies are gone, though not usually water proof.
Purses --For women (or those who identify as women). A friend of mine saw the idea of using purses online and wanted to contribute her old purses to the cause, but remarked that she never sees homeless women in her area, only homeless men. I told her I would gladly put those purses to use, so she mailed me some to use in a second round of care packs after christmas. Avoid small clutch bags that won't hold your essentials, and consider staying away from super large or expensive looking bags that might become an obvious target for theft.
Allocating Goods -- I found it best to just lay out items on top of bags before doing any packing. This lets you see how things come together; what you have a lot of, and what you're short on. Don't fret if every package isn't identical. If you run out of lip balm, toss in an extra shampoo or granola bar instead. Figure out if you want to put several tampons in each pack, or just one --allowing you to make a greater number of women's packages overall.
If your care packages for men and women do not have obvious visual differences (purse vs. ziploc), you may do well to find a quick way of labeling them. You can apply color coded stickers to the outside of the bag, or simply "man" or "woman" on it with a Sharpie. This way the items go to a person who can use them. A male recipient won't need tampons, and may not think to save them to give to a female friend, so you want to get items like that into the hands of a woman in the first place, if possible.
Step 8: Getting Them Out There
The homeless man I initially spoke with was approachable and friendly, and I felt comfortable asking if he would help me with my mission. We arranged that I would bring him a large bag full of care packages and then he could distribute them within the homeless community, which usually gathers in a particular park. I realize this is a gamble, as some people might keep everything for themselves or try to sell it, but I really believe this guy is interested in doing the right thing and will distribute as intended. Character judgement comes into play here and there's no easy Ible for that --you just have to trust your gut.
*12/26/15 Project Update: I met up with the above mentioned liaison on christmas eve and left him with a large bag full of care packages, which he would distribute in the park later. He had two friends sitting with him at the time, to whom I handed care packages personally. One guy was so excited about the juice box and the nice new T-shirt! They were very grateful, wanted to shake hands, and wished me a merry christmas. While I won't get to see the full effect of the packages on the streets, that little preview felt pretty good.
If you don't have a relationship like this established, you can keep care packages in your car. If you see a homeless person at an intersection, you can roll down your window and give them a package instead of giving cash. I have done this in the past with very good results, and will hold on a few packs to keep in my car this winter.
If you want to help but don't live in an area with an obvious homeless population, or simply don't feel comfortable/ safe with one on one contact, you can still assemble packages for local organizations to distribute. Consider giving them to your local food bank or a women's shelter. People in need will come to these locations, eliminating the need for you to seek them out. A woman in my neighborhood throws a party on her lawn every christmas and has a big donation bin for a local shelter. If I have packages left over from my one on one distribution, I'll deposit them there.
Step 9: DO IT!
I've entered this project in the Homemade Gifts contest for visibility. While I always appreciate votes, what is most important to me is that you DO this project. SHARE this project. Make this your next classroom project, scout troop/ club activity, or personal good deed of the year. Too late for x-mas? Do it for Valentines Day, St. Patrick's, Easter, or just because. I'd like to see this happening in communities all over, so if you make a care package for someone less fortunate (even just one person), tell me what you put in it or post a photo in the comments.