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Organizing a Simple Homeless Outreach
There are thousands living on the streets today all over America
It's Not Hard To Help
I believe that people are inherently good...and compassionate. I believe that given the opportunity, most people like to help those that are in need. I know this because for the past four years, a group of us from our organization, In His Shoes (www.inhisshoes.org), take to the streets to feed and clothe the homeless population of L.A.'s Skid Row Area.
I'm not saying this to blow my own horn. My intent here today is to outline how little effort and money it takes to start a homeless outreach of your own. Each month, we have a core group of regulars that attend, and then we take with us another 4 volunteers. Our outreach has become a very popular ministry to the point that we can't take all that sign up to go . But I often think that perhaps we should start more outreaches....going out more often than once a month. It's not a difficult thing, but maybe a little daunting to organize. So that's my intent here. To outline what's involved in organizing a simple homeless outreach.
All you need is compassion and commitment (that's the biggest part), a group of friends, a couple cars and a plan.
Here's how to begin
Finding the right friends: I'm sure you know which of your friends would be open to spending time out on the street. You want open-minded friends that are approachable and non-judgmental. I mean, really, we're only where we are because of our support systems. The people you'll be serving don't have that in their lives. So you want people that are caring and compassionate. Call your friends and tell them what your intention is. You'll only need about 6-8 friends per outing.
Planning what you'll serve: Keeping the meal simple and portable is important. We usually will take cases of Cup O' Noodles which we hydrate with hot water that we take in thermoses. We give our friends hot soup, or dry soup for the next day (or both). Some have access to hot water from lunch trucks. So doing the portable soup is a good plan.
We also do peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (and plain jelly for those with nut allergies), and hot cocoa as a meal as well. PB&J is a good alternative in the summer, when temps in California can get very warm. They're also non-perishable (for a short time at least) and require no refrigeration, so they're good for storing for later if the recipient isn't hungry at that time.
Water bottles: Having a cool, fresh drink of water when you live on the street is a wonderful thing. Make sure you take cases of water with you. Be generous. You'll find there will be people that ask you for 2 or 3 bottles, even if they take nothing else.
Snacks: We like to take something sweet. Treats! which are really well loves and received. At Halloween we take candy, fresh fruit (small bags of grapes or cherries), little apples or oranges are really welcomed. But in general we take individually wrapped cookies or crackers. Rice Krispies Treats, Moon Pies, Cookies.
Collecting Clothing: If you work in an office, send out an email to your coworkers and ask them to remember you when they're cleaning out their closets. Tell them your intention: to clothe the homeless, and ask that they save clothing that can be worn on the street. I do this at my work. I get at least a bag or two of clothing per week. Ask specifically for jeans/pants, tshirts, sweats, sweatshirts, hoodies, jackets, SOCKS, underwear (okay, people will be reluctant to share their underwear, but sometimes..), blankets, towels and shoes. If your company has people that travel, ask that they save the little mini shampoos and toiletries from hotels for you to give away. Be persistent. Ask a week prior to going each month. Soon your friends will know that you're collecting.
I usually have bags of clothing in the back of my car, but if you don't have room, store the bags in your garage or home til you're ready to go. You'll want to sort through what you have to make sure it's usable for your outreach. No sense in dragging a bag of prom dresses to the street when you could make room for something useful.
Donations: How to Fund your Outreach
The cost of running this outreach is somewhere around $75 to $100 a month. This would pay for the soup, cases of water bottles, snacks, and forks. Let's say you are going with a group of 8 people -- that's a donation of $12.50 per person. You can always ask for donations of items. What we do is ask whoever has signed up to participate to bring a couple cases of soup, or a couple cases or water. We have regular donors of snacks. People are good. They like to give. So all you have to do is tell them your intention. If you are involved with your church or an organization, ask that they post your need for food, water and clothing donations in the newsletter. You can also approach your local market and ask if they would like to donate. The possibilities are endless.
Packing it up and Getting it Out
Because of our work schedules, we run our homeless outreach in the evening. On the designated night, we meet at church where we work together to unwrap the soups (remove cardboard and outer wrap but not the lid).
We also go through the donated clothing. Since there are several of us that collect clothing, we sort: men, women, jackets, toiletries, shoes, etc. It's much easier to have things sorted than to open mixed bags on the street. Not only will you avoid having to dig through stuff, you will avoid chaos. It's always good to know what you have in your bags. That way, when you're asked, "Do you have a blanket?" You're not digging around. If you need socks, you'll know where to look. Remember that people will be coming up to your car for items. It's best to know what you have so you can be efficient.
Two to Three Cars Max! Safety is key. You want to be safe. In the four years that we've been going out to the street, we have never had a problem (knock on wood). That being said, it can get rough, especially when one person gets an item that another person wants. So plan on going with just the right amount of people. Two to three cars at the most.
One car handles all the food. The other car handles the clothing, and if you have a third car, they can do the water bottles and snacks. Drive to the area where you know there are homeless people. Look for encampments on the side walk. Pull up and park. Call out that you have soup and clothing. I use my Honda Element to serve the soup out of. Open the tailgate of your car. Slide the thermos forward, pour water in the soup and add a fork. Have two people work on soup. While people are lining up for soup, hand each one a water bottle. The fourth person can hand them a snack.
In the second car, have the back open and have 2-3 people working on distributing clothing. This job can easily get overwhelming as people start coming up to grab things. Be firm, but gentle. Call out the size of an item, hand it to the person who needs it. You'll get the hang of it. In general, the homeless friends that we have met are very appreciative.
The Look Out: It's important to have one person act as an overseer. This person can direct people to the right cars, can answer questions about your group, can help where needed, but in general, they need to be the eyes for the group. Making sure that there is nothing suspicious or dangerous. For example, if you see a drug deal going on, or someone is getting combative, ...it's time to move on. Make sure your friends know that when you say, "Okay, pack it up!" that everyone needs to move to go to the next stop. This doesn't happen too often, but it does happen.
Some Good Reading about Compassion
A beautiful book about my hero, Mother Teresa
When All Is Said And Done
Make sure to clean up after yourselves. Take a couple trash bags. Don't leave wrappers, and water case plastics on the street. Pick up and haul it away with you. It's difficult enough living on the street. We don't need to mess it up more by leaving our trash around.
Once you have run out of food, and distributed the clothing there will be some clothing items left over. Find the nearest shelter and drop the items off there, or take them to the Good Will or other organization that can use them.
That's all there is to it. The rewards are great. You will see what a blessing it is for you to be able to help others.