I listen to NPR almost every time I’m in the car. Friday’s “All Things Considered” included a story about the growing numbers of homeless citizens in the United States. NPR journalist Kelly McEvers revealed that the annual federal report on homelessness showed the number of homeless Americans rose in 2017 for the first time since 2010. In Los Angeles, McEvers spoke to Joryelle Marage, a 27-year-old artist who moved to LA in 2013. Marage tried hard to break into the fashion industry. She didn’t have much experience, and searched for a way into fashion school. Eventually, she met a guy, moved in, had two children, and when he started abusing her, she moved out. Her daughters stayed with their father. She moved in with her sisters, where she was able to rent one room for $800/month. She couldn’t afford it. Before long, she was on the street. Almost daily, she sleeps on Skid Row in a chair. She’s also three months pregnant.
While each piece of Joryelle’s story hurt my heart, this interaction ruined me:
MARAGE: I'm three months pregnant, so that's hard. That's equally hard sleeping out on the street on a chair with just a sleeping bag. But I was able to get another blanket last night, so I wasn't as cold (laughter).
MCEVERS: It was chilly last night.
MARAGE: It was - that was - that's an understatement. I was cold. I was freezing. But I'm here. I made it through the night - so counts for something, right?
Her voice broke as she choked out those last few words. I sobbed. The one thing on my mind was that same question posed all-too-often: How? How in one of the most powerful, wealthiest nations, do we find it acceptable to have a pregnant woman sleeping on the street?
And I know what some of you are thinking: She did it to herself. Why doesn’t she live somewhere she can afford? She’s probably a drug addict. Why did she have kids if she couldn’t afford to raise them? If she just worked harder she’d be able to afford a house. Get a job.
We are all a few bad decisions, or risks, away from the street. The entire notion of “The American Dream” relies on taking enormous risks, and hoping there’s a net to catch you. Not everyone has the resources support system to sew that net.
I used to feel more nervous about handing my dollars to homeless people. Until the spring of my freshman year of college, when I took Western Civilizations II, a required course for history majors. The course was taught by my advisor, a man I met once before taking the class, and he seemed pretty no-nonsense. One afternoon, he had just started his lecture, and stopped in his tracks. Instead of continuing, he said:
It’s easy to judge a homeless person when you aren’t homeless. I know many of you might see a homeless person and not want to give them any money. You might say, “Oh they’re just going to go buy some alcohol.” And sure, maybe that guy is an alcoholic. But think, just for a minute, about what it’s like for that guy to stand outside in the cold every day, and to watch happy people, clean and dressed for the weather, go into a restaurant or a bar and enjoy a beer. Wouldn’t you want a drink too?”
That always stuck with me. Who am I to decide what a homeless person needs or deserves? Sadly, dehumanizing and infantilizing homeless and impoverished people remains the cultural norm. It’s also clear that this year, in the wake of catastrophic natural disasters from hurricanes to wildfires, the homeless population continues to climb.
Meanwhile, we sit in the midst of another holiday season, where gift guides circulate across social media revealing the season’s *hottest* items – a time when most of us won’t even have to ask before receiving the perfect present.
After days spent with Joryelle Marage’s story ringing in my ears, I want to direct the conversation away from whatever gifts we all want, to the gifts that our most vulnerable citizens need. Instead of walking by someone sleeping on the street this year, maybe you and your loved ones will consider helping them receive the resources and tools they need to get through today, or to build themselves a better tomorrow.
Note: Unfortunately, it's difficult to ask for or accept help without shame. Do feel offended, and do not give up entirely, if someone living on the street has no desire to speak with you or to accept a gift. Remember, being vulnerable isn’t easy.
1. A pay-as-you-go phone
American social norms have evolved to accept “Get a job,” as the most common response to our homeless citizens. A simple question, now more than ever before, proves the simple-mindedness of such a comment: How do you get a job without a phone? It’s difficult for homeless folks to apply for jobs when they can't provide a contact number, especially when homeless shelters are overflowing and disappearing. This year, consider making a small investment in a pay-as-you-go no-contract phone for a homeless person. Best Buy offers a series of plans, and you can even purchase prepaid cards to refill minutes and data. Better yet, collect donations from friends and purchase a whole bunch to donate to your local shelter.
2. Anything from L.L. Bean
Growing up, we bought our backpacks from L.L. Bean. And it wasn’t necessarily because they were the most fashionable around (despite being highly customizable) – L.L. Bean offers a lifetime warranty on all of their products. In most circumstances, they’ll allow returns on any of their products, and will often replace them for your satisfaction. That means that someone who wore a pair of boots or a backpack forever can return them for a replacement, free of charge. Not to mention, L.L. Bean sells outdoor gear built for warmth and durability. Concerned about their politics? L.L. Bean publicly denied backing any political candidate or agenda in the 2016 presidential election, despite Linda Bean’s support for Donald Trump. If that still doesn’t do it for ya, try another outdoor retailer – but avoid Eddie Bauer.
3. Food that's not your half-eaten leftovers
Granted, I’ve given a loaf of bread left from breakfast or a box of nearly untouched leftovers to people on the street, but who wants sloppy seconds? If you really want to treat someone to an act of kindness, ask if you can purchase them a hot meal, a snack, or a hot coffee. Heading into the city for a night out friends? Purchase a pizza on the way and hand it off to a hungry stranger. Pack a few extra granola bars or snacks to hand out. Especially on cold winter nights, almost nothing tastes or makes you feel as good as something hot to eat or drink. Keep in mind that many local police officers forbid homeless people to sleep in public spaces, so offering a coffee might offer more than a refreshment – it could help avoid attention from law enforcement.
4. Weather-proof blankets
This gift made the list for obvious reasons. Many homeless people spend every night sleeping wherever they can outdoors. And even if there’s a shelter for the night, most homeless folks spend nearly all day outside, and are frequently on the move. It’s hard to stay warm with wet blankets, or to hold onto those blankets when you're constantly forced to move. Therefore, a couple of weather-proof blankets are ideal, especially in the cold Winter months. Buy a couple for someone you frequently pass on the street, or donate a few to your local shelter.
Clothes are one of the simplest and most valuable gifts you can give to someone in need. Whether you clean out your closet and bring your used clothes (in good condition) to a local shelter, or take a trip to the nearest thrift store, there are plenty of affordable ways to help people stay fresh and warm. A brand new coat and/or socks go a long way. A trip to the thrift store offers an opportunity to buy jackets, blankets, shirts, sweaters, flannels, pants, and shoes all for a reasonable price.
It’s not just warm, outdoor attire that’s necessary, but also business-casual attire. One thing my father and I did every year was to take as much of his business attire as he could give away and spread out donations to local men’s shelters. Again, it’s a lot easier to get a job when you have the proper resources.
6. Backpack full of essentials
Since most homeless people are forced to stay on the move, a backpack filled with necessities like a toothbrush, toothpaste, first aid kit, water, snacks, a flashlight, a blanket, fresh clothes, a poncho/umbrella, information on local resources, and anything else you can afford to give holds serious value. Other great additions include hand and foot warmers, hats, gloves, mittens, and fresh socks. If you know the person receiving the bag, consider other factors like, do they have a dog? Children? This item offers the means to help someone through a few days or weeks, instead of just a few hours. If you’re low on personal funds, team up with some friends or colleagues to put the bag together.
7. Personal care kit
Packed in a sturdy Ziplock bag or a backpack, the necessities for staying fresh and clean are a luxury for many homeless folks. Cleaning oneself in public or in public spaces comes with anxiety, discomfort, and humiliation. Handing someone a bag filled with a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, deodorant, dry shampoo, talcum powder, a razor, shaving cream, baby wipes, face wash, moisturizer, etc. will alleviate a lot of the anxiety around getting and staying clean.
8. Public transportation tickets
Most of us probably take for granted our mobility. For someone who can’t afford a subway ticket, bus ticket, or cab fare, only two good feet and human kindness are reliable. The next time someone asks for a some spare change for a bus ticket, ask if you can buy it for them instead. Or simply, instead of walking by someone on the street, ask if you can help them get somewhere by paying for their fare.
9. Company and conversation
Consider how it feels to have most passersby actively ignore your existence. Now, consider how nice it would feel to have one of those people take an interest in who you are, your day, or your story. Homeless folks have the same human needs as anybody else – a sense of belonging among them. Ask someone if you can sit and talk with them for awhile. Ask if you can take them to coffee, a meal, or to a movie. Time is irreplaceable – and that kind of respect and empathy might mean more than any material item you could possibly give.
Many organizations don’t recommend it, and many people fear responsibility for funding someone’s possible addiction. But, I always think about what my former professor said – it’s easy to judge when you aren’t homeless. The truth is, you don’t know where that money might go.