Items to give to area homeless people
May 5, 2011 2:44 PM   Subscribe

Help me come up with ideas for items that would be needed by the homeless. I see many homeless people on my commute to and from work, usually at stoplights. I never carry cash on me, but would like to keep things in my car that I can give out.

I was thinking about putting the items in bags & handing them out instead of cash. I have a few ideas like bottled water, toothbrush & paste, combs, deodorant, & maybe a box of snack bars. Any items would have to be kept in my car & not spoil. Can you think of any others? Or can you think of any reason why this isn't a good idea? Thanks in advance!
posted by DizzyLeaf to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Baby wipes, food vouchers, tinned fruit
posted by errspy at 2:48 PM on May 5, 2011

new clean socks
posted by brainmouse at 2:48 PM on May 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

PBJ sandwiches
posted by astapasta24 at 2:49 PM on May 5, 2011

Soap would be a good item to throw on that list. Dental floss like the ones given out after you visit the dentist.
if you are not in the camp of 'dont enable', a pack of smokes to give a couple loosies and perhaps a couple small bottles of booze (not trying to start an ethics debate, but booze is a form of self medicating/disease and could be useful). First aid supplies are good, maybe some rubbing alcohol, bandaides, medical guaze, tylenol/asprin.

Another great idea is to have a print out of resources the homeless could utilize, such as food kitchens, shelters, free clinics, and whatever else you can come up with.

Good for you btw.
posted by handbanana at 2:51 PM on May 5, 2011

What a nice idea! How about small travel packs of baby wipes? Nuts? Jerky? $5 fast food gift cards? Grocery store gift cards in manageable amounts?
posted by cecic at 2:51 PM on May 5, 2011

posted by Sully at 2:51 PM on May 5, 2011

Best answer: Checking your profile I see you're in Atlanta. Food not Bombs runs a foodshare around lunchtime in front of city hall every Sunday and in Hurt Park every Wednesday around 5. Let them know there's a place they can get a hot meal, just don't tell them it's vegetarian or they'll never show up.

I'm also seconding the swell socks suggestion.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 2:52 PM on May 5, 2011

My friend (who doesn't smoke) one bought a few boxes of cigarettes for exactly this purpose.

I like the idea of toothbrushes better. Or hat/gloves in the winter.
posted by phunniemee at 2:52 PM on May 5, 2011

Duct tape (good way to share out the multiple mostly-used rolls that you have in the shop...)
posted by noahv at 3:01 PM on May 5, 2011

Socks, bug repellent, and lotion.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 3:03 PM on May 5, 2011

I used to give out dog food as there's loads of homeless guys where I used to live that had dogs and they can sometimes barely afford to feed themselves let alone their animals.
posted by gonzo_ID at 3:03 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to work in homeless services, so can say from my experience: Giving someone who panhandles at a stoplight something of value can be dangerous if they are seen receiving it by someone who wants that item. Homeless people who are victims of violence are often victimized by other homeless people who want what they have. It doesn't have to be something of monetary value, just something recognizable and not immediately consumable. Also, if you pass the same way every day and your car becomes recognized, you're going to either have a dangerous pedestrian situation in your hands, or someone may notice your car and break into it for more while you're parked somewhere.

I understand that you want to help and that seeing these people makes you feel guilty and it is tough being a person who commutes to and from work every day in a warm car and then sleeps in your warm bed and seeing people who have less than you and feeling a responsibility towards them. Take that feeling and own it and then donate your money and your objects to your local homeless shelter, women's shelter, or community group. They are equipped to disseminate food, objects, and money safely to the homeless without endangering them or yourself.
posted by juniperesque at 3:08 PM on May 5, 2011 [44 favorites]

Best answer: Alcohol swabs, q-tips, cotton balls, allergy pills, neosporin, band-aids, safety pins, nail clippers, small pocket mirror, sewing kit, dental floss, super glue (shoe goop like cement even better), ziplock bags, zip ties, shoe laces, porn, those fruit pies that are like 1000 calories a piece, sandpaper, tobacco and rolling papers, lighter, candles, AA batteries, keychain light, candy in tins/plastic water tight tubes, playing cards, whetstone.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:17 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One of those "emergency" rain ponchos? These are only $3.99 a piece, but if you look around you might be able to find higher quality ones for less if you buy them in a bulk amount.
posted by raztaj at 3:18 PM on May 5, 2011

Best answer: I hear you should always offer soft foods, because many homeless people have not received dental care for years, and finding chewing hard foods very painful. So granola bars are right out.
posted by Joh at 3:18 PM on May 5, 2011

Canned fruit, beans, stews and soups (the kind that don't require diluting) with pull-off tops.
posted by Rash at 3:36 PM on May 5, 2011

Juniperesque is right on the money.
posted by Murray M at 3:38 PM on May 5, 2011

Best answer: When I volunteered at a shelter, people would ask that same question, and the usual answer was that $5-$10 giftcards to drugstores were always best.
posted by halogen at 3:41 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

loose cigarettes, fruit (especially bananas, which pass the soft test), and definitely by summer bottled water will be popular.

canned food without a pull tab might not be the best idea for universal popularity.

Also, not to be the third buzzkill in here, but what juniperesque said. You don't want to make your recipient a target, but even if they don't get jumped for their can of dog food, most homeless people do not have a lot of storage (shopping cart fortresses to the contrary). handing stuff out might make you feel better, but it will probably not have the same net improvement that funding more shelter beds would.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:42 PM on May 5, 2011

I have heard repeatedly from our homeless advocates that socks are always needed and appreciated. However, juniperesque probably has a good point-- donating goods or cash to a local shelter might be a better/safer for everyone idea. Your local homeless network certainly can use the money, and private donations are extremely helpful because they don't have the kinds of restrictions that State/Federal dollars often do.
posted by Kpele at 3:59 PM on May 5, 2011

I was homeless for a couple of years and the 'buzzkill' people are full of shit. May be all about location, but my clan of homeless were very good about sharing/bartering various sundries. Shelters are generally fuck worth nothing when it's not in their open hours, they're miles away and you need a fucking asprin. Or you had better be there in line at 8am sharp for your bowl of oatmeal and powdered milk and no you don't get seconds and your ass better be out of there by 9. It's the crazy shelter people who provide nothing but gruel and preach the "nobody can help them better than us, don't give them anything you're not qualified to help on your own, we know what's best" types that keep homeless people from using the services in the first place.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:13 PM on May 5, 2011 [16 favorites]

Have you thought of asking the homeless or a homeless shelter? It's ridiculous to be carrying items around with you and shelters and kitchens will better use your support for people on the streets and people who are holding on to shelter.
posted by parmanparman at 4:35 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another person agreeing with juniperesque! I'd strongly suggest you ask your local shelters/outreach people what the population in your area actually needs and then either donate the cash to purchase it or donate the actual items. At some agencies, cash is actually preferrred - because they have agreements with certain companies to buy things at cost (so, for example, where you pay $1.50 for toothpaste, they might only pay $0.50) and can maximize the impact of your donation which is pretty cool.

Another thing to consider is that, In my area, for example, the agencies have "agreements" with certain local companies that donate items - so, for example, the local pharmacy may donate 2 cases of toothpaste at the start of the month - so you showing up on their doorstep with a sack of tubes wouldn't be useful. I know that, for us, socks are always a good idea - but bus tickets are like gold. Everyone who needs to get to an appointment, to another agency, to a court date, to buy groceries (etc.) needs bus tickets. I've often said that if I won the lottery, I'd donate a lot of the money for bus ticket purchasing. Maybe a bus ticket trust fund...

Also, if you want to make a big difference, consider volunteering at one of the agencies. They are frequently in need of help serving food (during non-holiday times), people who will organize donated clothing, people to just sit and have a conversation with the clients, and other tasks that may or may not involve direct contact with people. And it doesn't have to be a huge amount of time, either.
posted by VioletU at 4:51 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why would you go out of your way to exchange the most useful and transportable thing you have, money, for something far less useful, specifically in order to hand it out to people whose needs you admit you can't anticipate? I can think of a few reasons, but few which are defensible.

If you want to give people what they think is best for themselves, then give them cash. If you want to give people what social workers and statisticians would claim is best for them, find a community organization you can enthusiastically support, and give them cash instead.

Giving your money to PepsiCo and Proctor & Gamble in order to hand bottled water and plastic boxes of floss to homeless guys? That's not merely paternalistic, it's also wasteful. (Unless you happen to have a basement full of bottle water already, 'cause your roommate is a coupon nut. That's a different story.)
posted by eotvos at 5:03 PM on May 5, 2011 [14 favorites]

If it makes sense based on your location, the homeless folks I work with typically would be interested in bus or subway tickets.
posted by mjcon at 5:51 PM on May 5, 2011

I would expect that the best way to help someone in need would be to give them what they are asking for: money.
posted by gjc at 7:05 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Paperback books of all kinds, magazines too. I brought a bunch of these to a homeless encampment a few years ago in Florida and it was all so well received that I continued to do it. A wide range of books were popular, escapist stuff and serious stuff alike. National Geographics, Smithsonians and other similar mags were very popular. Paper and pens. Blankets in the winter. Clean t-shirts from thrift shops. I also raised money for about a dozen tents. Unfortunately the cops raided and slashed the tents. To have a safe private space meant a lot.

I agree that giving money is fine, I've done that too.

One of the worst problems with so-called services for the homeless is that they're faith-based and try to shove their brand of faith down people's throats at every opportunity.
posted by mareli at 7:10 PM on May 5, 2011

I have had some loose affiliations with homeless shelters, and, I mean no disrespect, but I would take any advice given by shelter administration with a grain of salt. I'm sure some are wonderful, but many are very rigid and don't truly help to end homelessness, or even ensure a warm place to sleep. The two that I was involved with both had an attitude that these people were homeless through fault, rather than luck, a position that I do not share.

My friend A got booted from her volunteer position at a shelter because she took a kid home with her. She was in college, 21, off campus apartment with a roommate. Kid in question was 16, junkie parents finally flaked out completely, kid felt too old to go turn himself in to foster care, ended up in the shelter. Bright kid, had always gone to school until he became homeless, just didn't have a friend in the world. So A befriended him. He slept on the couch, she got him signed up with a bunch of social services (she had a car, you see), helped him get his GED, got him enrolled in community college, where he got a job in the cafeteria and, eventually, an apartment.

Fast forward ten years, the kid is now a man, married, a paralegal.

The shelter raised holy hell over A taking this kid home. Inappropriate, dangerous, possibly illegal, etc. Withdrew their letter of recommendation to her. Cops knocked on her door, asking her about possible "harboring a fugitive minor". (Roommate was a law student, so that didn't fly.) I think they really thought it was better for this reasonably healthy child to live with a bunch of middle aged men, almost all of whom had addiction/mental illness problems, than it was for him to bunk with students close to his age. I still don't understand what their rationale was.

As for me, I've given homeless folks cash. Never been mugged. If you want to give stuff, my top picks are those credit card things for fast food places, socks, cigarettes, and this, if they ever get to production level.
posted by Leta at 8:21 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm with eotvos and gjc. By buying things and handing them out, you're essentially saying, "I don't trust you to make your own choices with the money I give you, so I'm making the choice for you." It's not only insulting -- how would you feel if your boss told you what you could spend your money on, or paid you in groceries? -- but it limits the options people have to deal with situations that can change by the minute.

Maybe you're worried that they'll spend it on drugs? Well, fine. If they don't get the money from you, maybe they'll get it by shoplifting or prostitution. Ask yourself, what are you trying to prevent?

Disclaimer: I have been poor enough to be hungry, but never homeless.
posted by klanawa at 8:33 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing new socks. I've volunteered quite a bit with homeless individuals and that the answer that comes up most often by far when asked what they need.

Can I also suggest that a smile, and a "hello" are things that are free for you to give but can mean a lot to someone who's overlooked, ignored, and dehumanized on a regular basis. Not everyone is going to appreciate it, but it's worth doing.

Donate to your local homeless advocacy organization as well. It's admirable to want to be generous to the individuals you see, but contributing to organizing that attack the roots of the problem in order to bring about systemic change are critical.
posted by purplevelvet at 8:42 PM on May 5, 2011

Best answer: Captain Buzzkill again: I have to admit that my contact with homelessness is different than some of the posters here. I live in Portland, which has some very good nonreligious shelters and social services. I have some friends who've worked at Outside In, and I know at least one person who got saved by Janus Youth. When I am talking up donating to shelters, I'm thinking specifically about organizations that are actually focussed on helping people and turning their lives around, rather than converting them to a particular religion.

That said, Portland ain't Atlanta, and I don't think there's anywhere in this country that's particularly interested institutionally in doing right by older homeless men. (And Portland's pretty magical in that it seems to care about street kids at all)

I think the smartest stuff that's been said in here so far, if I might paraphrase, is "why are you asking us?" Ask the folks at stoplights what they want, if not cash. Talk to someone at a shelter (this might be a good one to start with). It might also be worth thinking about some of the people you don't see on your commute.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:09 PM on May 5, 2011

Best answer: I'm half with juniperesque and half not on this one. I was homeless in two non-major-city environments where homeless outreach/services were non-existent, or at least completely unknown to me. Now that I live in NYC and volunteer at a couple food pantries/soup kitchens myself, I find myself getting just a little bit pissy with people asking me for food on the street, as there are quite a few places to get a damn hot meal if you're rumbling around on empty. That said, I wouldn't be caught dead in a shelter, and I've talked to plenty of people who avoid/refuse to utilize any of the services available for a variety of reasons. So hey, if you notice people who need help and wanna give something, I think that's first rate wonderful, albeit with the same caveat juniperesque states: if you're talking about helping one or two of a handful of people hanging around at a stoplight, please don't. This is a terrible idea. You really don't need anyone knowing what you've got when it's all you've got. Please try to do your thing when nobody's watching*.

Mareli's suggestions of books would have been an interesting and deeply weird treat to receive, but then I'm a rabid reader and had to try to pass a lot of time looking like a 'normal' kid in public places. Drugstore gift cards would have been like gold - that's a brilliant idea. I also remember treats that randomly fell my way - an entire loaf of freshly baked, still hot bread, a stupidly delicious ice cream sandwich, once - were appreciated because it was normal-people, non-basic-necessity-stuff that I was just never going to get or otherwise buy for if I had half the chance. For some reason, right now, I'm thinking a supermarket four-pack of those massive blueberry muffins would be an unbelieveably delightful thing to hand over. Basics are wonderful. 'Luxuries' like this become transcendent.

I seriously don't think I would've used a tent, as nice as it sounds - even the thought scares me for its freakish conspicuousness (maybe just because I'm female, but I doubt it - anything that drew attention or was desireable was a seriously bad idea). Lighters, matches, candles, ready-to-go chow that keeps well... a first aid kit (one with scissors - you'd be amazed how frequently you want scissors when you don't have them!) would've made me feel a little bit safer in the world, and drugstore packs of socks or undershirts would've felt super nice to receive. But my main one, and my biggest pet peeve, both then and now, is watching the well-meaning but clueless giving plenty of canned goods (and I don't mean the tab top kind) and no fucking can opener. Or, equally maddening, things that need to be refrigerated or prepared in actual pots and crap, which, incredibly oddly, I notice happening with stunning frequency. Like we'd all just be trundling off to our respective homeless people kitchens and cooking up some deliciousness. No. Don't do it. I know you're trying to be nice, but it seriously makes me want to punch you in the fucking face for how little you see the actual situation at hand.

*this of course means taking your own safety first and foremost into consideration, which I would recommend doing to almost paranoid levels. I met plenty of perfectly normal, harmless people when down and out, but the small handful that weren't, I will never ever forget. So if there's even the chance of danger to yourself, just leave them alone, ok?
posted by involution at 11:32 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

...Also: I know and truly get why some people think it's offensive to give (or receive) stuff - food or otherwise - instead of cash. Cash is of course fabulous, but you know, it's deeply problematic how blindingly fast it goes. So sometimes it actually is really deeply fabulous to get tangibly useful STUFF, even if it's just the psychological factor of physically having clean stuff/food stock/blankets/whatever in your possession for however long it holds out. If it was just handed over without any expectations or fuss or preachy crap, I was never, ever insulted by anything that came my way (OK, yeah, except the permanently sealed canned goods and shit that I was supposed to cook in my non-existent miracle kitchen. That sucked. But otherwise, it was pretty much all gravy).

- ah. And perhaps your half-mawed restaurant leftovers. That's still on the little-bit-gross/insulting list.
posted by involution at 12:10 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers! I can definitely see both sides of the argument. I understand there are much bigger issues here, but what I'm just trying to do is provide some useful items to a few folks who's basic needs aren't being met. Atlanta's not the easiest city to get around on foot, and I'm a little unimpressed with how the city treats its homeless. I wish I had the time to volunteer, but I already volunteer at an animal shelter, and work long hours at the office. The few people I see to and from work are usually by themselves, and I know they live near the road (I can see their make-shift tents & sleeping areas.) I don't think they leave their general areas, and there is no public transportation nearby. I will take your advice on some of these items, and hand them out whenever I can. But I'll take the other advice to heart too - and pay more attention to how I can contribute on a larger scale. Thanks again everyone!!
posted by DizzyLeaf at 7:06 AM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: PS... one cold morning that will forever stick in my mind and heart: I brought one person at his usual corner a fresh, steamy hot chocolate. I will never forget his expression. Just that one little act brought him a few moments of comfort, but it did more for my soul than I can express here in words. Sometimes, it's just the little things...
posted by DizzyLeaf at 7:11 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dizzyleaf: When I worked with homeless we had a water proof foldable card which had a list of all available homeless services in the area. It listed every free meal, free showers, places to sleep, church programs, counseling, work opportunities, day labor--- and also had bus routes listed. If any homeless services are producing those in your area, they can be helpful if the person needed supplies and they didn't know there was a meal happening later in the day.

With that in mind, day bus passes are also nice. Maybe controversial for non-homeless because on hot or cold days- a homeless person will often use the bus pass to ride all day and get respice from the elements and a much needed nap in a safe(r) place than usual.

I can't say socks enough. Boot rot is a b**ch. Want to second both that non-social workers often don't know what they're doing----- and that social workers get really full of pretentious nonsense abuot helping homeless folk. I found the behaviors of many social workers to be more narcisstic, self absorbed and pretentious than a large portion of the homeless who were just human beings trying to murk through life but were marked with all sorts of various labels and various classifications as "target populations" by people obsessed with the brilliance of their "work".

(When you see human beings in front of you and you classify them as a disorder, disease, population, or various "other" you aren't actually serving humans. You're serving your ego.)

There are some really badass people working with homeless too, and even the pretentious can wind up inadvertantly doing so good so carry on. Then again, I've seen more of those kids recover because humans who "didn't know what they were doing" took them in, than those who tried to get help from a beuarocratic system that "knows best how to heal this population." (Nobody does. If we did there wouldn't be homeless.)
posted by xarnop at 9:58 AM on May 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

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