Saturday, August 29, 2015

Good Neighbor Bags

I love my neighborhood. I love the diversity, from the Mormon missionaries on the corner to the architect down the street, the homeboys around the corner who have no visible means of support, and the teacher across the street.

I love to see neighbors recycling, biking to work, and saving water in their yards.

We live in a great neighborhood.

Also in our neighborhood-the homeless, and poverty-stricken. I do not know the circumstances of these people, and I have no reason or experience by which to judge them. I know sometimes the circumstances are brought on by personal choices, and bad decisions, sometimes the economy, and sometimes by things beyond our control. I do not care what the reasons are. I only know that my neighbors are in need.

However, I hate to be pan-handled. I hate it when strangers ask me for money. I hate it when I have to say no, or feel pressured into saying yes. I hate for my children to see me interact with those less fortunate than ourselves (yes, I believe we are FORTUNATE. There is a degree of luck, to the security we enjoy). I don't mind buying someone lunch, and I do whenever it's an option, but sometimes it just isn't. Most of the time I don't carry cash. And I feel that giving someone a few pennies is condescending.

But these people are my neighbors.

So last year, Hank and I decided to make homeless packages, and I feel that this is something anyone can do. I'll suggest a few ways to make it happen, and what we did, and a comprehensive list.

Get your friends or neighborhood together. Can you each give $20 to help 20 people in need? Do you attend a church where people will give donations? If you have a large family, that's another way to get donations. Giving something up completely for a month or two and putting the money into items for the homeless packages. You can go directly to the source-a store that sells grooming products, a dentist with lots of toothbrushes and samples of toothpaste, etc.

We sort of had a mixture. Both of our moms made donations of items and some friends we solicited on facebook really came through with some other items that we needed to make a complete package. We also put aside 10% of our money for tithing. Some of this we give to our church, some we put into charitable organizations, or non-profits we enjoy, and some we use in our neighborhood, for things like homeless packages and toys for tots.

The items are cheap. Most can be purchased at the dollar store, or for a dollar or less at places like Target or Walgreens. Costco also has things like 11 sticks of lip balm, 52 men's razors, and 14 bars of soap at discount rates.

Most recently, the things we put together were (mostly travel size):

Bar soap/body wash
Shaving cream (for men)
Flash lights (include batteries)
Moist wipes
Body lotion
Hand sanitizer
First aid kit
Sewing kit
Money or gift cards to fast food
A card

It sounds like a lot, and it is. You can do less, and it's still helpful. The thing our neighbors were most excited about tended to be the socks. But you can even put together a package with just soap, deodorant, shampoo, toothbrush, and toothpaste, and we really recommend the socks (Costco, my friends). $5-$6 per package. Is that really too much to help a neighbor?

I also bought small reusable bags at Whole Foods for less than a dollar each. I bought 20 of those, and we got so much stuff we were able to put together another 5 bags, so we used gallon sized ziplock bags, and everything fit just right (minus the food items).

In our experience we meet a lot more men on the streets who are in need than women. There are reasons that there are less women actually out there, and women are in need, too. We did not put together gender-neutral bags, because men and women have different needs. We ended up doing 6 packages for women and 19 for men. Hank and I each keep a few bags for each in our cars, so that when we're out and about we can hand these bags to people out the window.

Last time they went fast. It was amazing how many people we encountered with cardboard signs-"hungry," "homeless," "looking for work," "anything helps." These are our neighbors, guys. Hard times, drug addicts, job that doesn't pay enough, mental illness, you just don't know what their story is. Does it really matter? Your community is in need.
The experiences I had with these bags are something I wouldn’t want to miss. It is uncomfortable when people praise me for being “so kind.” I only want to teach my kids to not judge others and do something to help someone. It’s purely selfish. I hate not being able to help. Now I have a ready-made bag to hand out. Usually the kids hand them out, through a window. Henry made me go back once because we hadn’t had time to hand the bag to a man in the parking lot at WinCo. It was inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as missing a meal. Sam points out people who might not have a home whenever he spots someone with a cardboard sign. He asks to hand them a homeless package. Once when I was attending a conference, I handed a bag to a man who clearly was suffering from mental illness. When I came out of the conference, he was sitting on some steps, carefully taking each item out of the bag and examining it, then laying it next to him. He was surrounded by small things like a toothbrush, a pair of socks, a box of conversation hearts. He didn’t thank me. He didn’t have to. I’m grateful I got to see him appreciating these small items,

Sometimes there is no thanks. But sometimes, in exchange I have gotten small toys for the children, once we got a pepper plant which Sam planted and it is the only thing we’ve been able to grow. It gives us many peppers and they have been delicious. I’ve also been given flowers. How humbling it is to be given a gift by someone who has so little. But it’s not about the thanks or the things people have wanted to give me in return. What this does for me, is gives me a chance to teach the kids about giving, and selfishly, it let’s me feel better when I see someone asking for change. I hope against hope that something in that bag will help them. But I don’t sleep any better at night. I’m in a warm bed, or an air-conditioned house. My husband has a job, and I have a job. My children are getting the best education we can provide and have a savings account that will get them through college by the time they graduate from college. I have a large family, most of whom live in the same city as me. I have good friends who have been there for me in hard times. I cannot imagine what that person does when they are so tired they can’t stand anymore, but they are turned away at every corner, begging has been criminalized and their homes destroyed by the city of whom they are constituents. It is shameful and I wish I could do more.

Most of us want to help. My hope is that more people will make these packages, and that blessing bags, or homeless packages, or good neighbor bags, will spread so that more of our neighbors across the country are feeling a little less alone, a little more love and a little warmer/less hungry/refreshed/more clean.

The drawback is that it's not tax-deductible, and truthfully, donations to food pantries, and other organizations that ARE tax deductible (Naomi's House, Poverello House, Food Not Bombs) are also good ways to help. But haven't we all been blessed? We have a roof over our heads, food in our kitchens, even if it's just pasta. Some of us don't have much beyond that, but we are blessed. And are we not all beggars, too? It's such a small price to pay for our neighbors in need.

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