OP-ED

2009 Homeless Gift Guide

Gurley This time of year, no matter what your worldview, religion or culture, it’s hard, as you hurry past the homeless huddled on the street, to not feel like Scrooge. Whether you’re taking your family to the Nutcracker, or pounding the pavement for a job yourself, walking past so many shivering mounds of human misery takes a toll on the psyche. Maybe your kids are tugging on your arm, asking why can’t something be done? Maybe you (like so many of us) just don’t feel comfortable handing out bits, or even wads, of cash. So what can YOU do to make a small difference? Here, folks, is the 3rd Annual Doc Gurley Homeless Gift Guide, with tips for how you too can safely give an affordable, life-saving gift to the neediest among us. Because when it comes to the homeless, that’s when, truly, The Giving Is Easy. And once you see how simple and rewarding it can be to drop a gift with a homeless person, be sure to pass the word along. Email friends, post your efforts on Facebook or MySpace. Put together gifts to have in your car for those awkward moments when you’re waiting at an intersection, staring at a scrawled “anything helps, even a smile” cardboard sign. It will change the whole tenor of your life.

Still feeling reluctant to throw together a homeless gift? Keep in mind that, when it comes to your health, studies show that acts of altruism benefit YOU – your life satisfaction, your overall level of contentment, and even how long you live. If altruism was a drug, it would outsell Viagra.

Still not convinced? Channel some of your Niner frustration into a slightly different competitive arena. Hey, we’ve got to do something to redeem our city’s good name – in the compassion-for-the-homeless nationwide stakes, San Francisco and Berkeley won top slots for Meanest Cities in America.

Still not convinced? Well, when it comes to gifts for the homeless, I’m not exaggerating about that life-saving part. How often can you give a simple gift, for less than 5 bucks, that can actually save the life of someone you pass each day? Now that’s effective gifting. Life on the streets takes a lethal toll, and many people die unacknowledged. If you have a moment to spare in memory of the destitute, head over to City Hall as you leave work tonight at 5:30pm for our city’s Solstice Homeless Death Memorial. Light a candle against the darkness tonight if you can, because each person deserves a moment to honor their passing.

How To Give:

Safety first – for you and your gift recipient. While many of us realize that giving an obvious gift to a street person might attract unwanted attention to yourself, you may not be aware that you could also be making your gift-recipient a target for assault later. When it comes to handing out a gift, here’s what you mutter to yourself as you do it (hey, you’ll blend in even more!): Discreet, discreet – the motto on the street. The safest and best way to gift a street person is to do what you already do – give small gifts to the folks you predictably pass on your usual routes, whether you’re going to work, going out to dinner, or heading to a movie. Keep a gift handy and, instead of bending over to drop a buck in a cup, put your bag on the ground and keep going. Don’t break stride, and avoid getting into long conversations. Don’t make a show of giving gifts around a large area and certainly don’t go into areas you don’t know. I’d say don’t gift alone, or in isolated areas, and don’t give gifts to crowds. Gift should be given in plain bags – no bows, no garish colors, no Tiffany sacks. It’s nice, though, to tuck inside a small bow or giftcard (“From Me, To You”). You wouldn’t wave money around, and the same applies to your gift. Anytime you might consider handing someone a dollar, hand him/her a gift instead. And do it as discreetly, and with as little fanfare.

What To Give:

Oooh (rubs hands together), now’s the fun part! You can give hope, joy and inspiration with ANY small gift, including that old standby, money. But if you’re looking for some practical tips, here’s a few ideas.

1) Give warmth – you can find nice knit watch caps for as little as a dollar at many stores, including Target. Tips: try to stick to gender-neutral colors, although brights like red are nice. Women and transgender people forced to live on the street are often targets of sexual violence, and tend to dress to stay under-the-radar. If you give a hot pink pom-pom hat to the homeless woman on your corner to brighten her day, don’t get your feelings hurt if it seems to have quickly disappeared. Same holds true for mittens and scarves. Darker colors are also nice because they don’t show wear so quickly. Heat-shield blankets (also widely available in camping sections, for approx. $3 each at Target) can save a life – especially now with winter settling in with a vengeance.

2) Give protection – If you’re considering gifting an umbrella, don’t go buy one! Instead, buy (for about the same price) a sturdy plastic poncho. Umbrellas are bulky for homeless people, and, frankly, too frail. Umbrellas rarely withstand continuous rain. You can also consider giving a nice Intruder Alarm, like the one I found. It combines a piercing alarm-lock to protect valuables, and an LED light, all into one small key-chain-sized device. Consider making your gift-bag a gift too. Street people struggle to carry belongings in those thin white plastic bags. A sturdy cloth bag, or a reusable heavy-plastic rain-proof one, with a small treat inside, is a gift all by itself.

3) Give health – Footcare is a huge deal if you’re exposed to constant rain, have no reliable access to a bathroom, and spend all day on your feet. Two pairs of sturdy new socks (two pairs so you can swap them out when one pair gets wet), a washcloth for drying between toes, and a toiletry-sized bottle of lotion make a great theme gift, especially now when continuous rains can actually cause homeless people to suffer from that World War I horror – trench foot. You can also gift a small first aid kit, or hygiene items. If you’re gifting toiletries, however, keep in mind that everything has to be carried at all times, so travel-sized is MUCH better than Costco-sized. It’s hard to give nourishing food, but giftcards of all types (food, transit, drugstore) make a nice gift. Be sure, however, to buy cards for locations that are very close by, and ones where a street person, maybe if not exactly welcomed, can at least reliably enter the premises.

4) Give joy – I personally think every present should have a little treat in it. Say, one high-quality, individually-wrapped chocolate, or a small fluffy whimsical item that would make anyone smile. When you buy these in packs, you can get them at very affordable prices to split among many homeless gift-bags. You can even combine joy and practicality by gifting a Santa-hat – it will keep a head warm, and help with panhandling.

5) Give understanding – with the economy so dire, many people may not be able to afford buying anything new. Giving a gift of something you already own (but rarely use), is fine. Maybe you have some old polartec throws, or a blanket or two that no one uses. You can also gift a street person with a BIG used item, like that old sleeping bag, or a coat, or even a tent. If you do gift a used item, be sure it’s obviously freshly laundered and mended. Homeless people are often victimized by receiving “free,” second-hand stuff that is infested with lice or scabies. It is an awful form of torture to have a warm item you’re afraid to use – so be sure YOUR gift smells laundry fresh!

Got a Homeless Gift suggestion or experience to share? Weigh in with the comments section (sorry, but please be warned – our comments section, for this article only, is officially a No-Scrooge-Zone)!

This article republished with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle

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4 replies »

  1. I just read your very nice article. What you have written is all true. Homeless people are looked down upon as evils in the communities. One mayor said if we feed them it is not helping to get rid of them. Like if you do not feed roaches they will leave. But the homeless are not roaches. They are souls with heart and soul who have feelings of hurt, loneliness, and torment (because of addictions). In sharing our goodness it is good to give to the homeless just as you described. Thanks for an excellent article. Now if only more people had heart to share as you described. Thanksgiving 2014 is now approaching. What better way to show our thanks for what God has given to us than to share with those for whom nothing has been prepared.

  2. I wish I read this before Christmas instead of after. My biggest fear is homelessness, not death. Yet, I often walk by people with blinders on my eyes. I am often struggling with bills, but feel I should try alittle of your gift giving ideas while it is snowing and we are in the middle of winter. It is never too late. Thanks for such a thought provoking article and for such very practical and safe recommendations.

  3. Two points. About ten years ago, I was president of an organization of parents of children with mental and behavioral health problems/ Our children’s difficulties meant that many of us lived on the financial brink ourselves–we made jokes about the potato diet, the macaroni diet and the rice diets we subsisted on, but we all had shelter. We went to the post office and collected undeliverable magazines and merchandise. We gave books and magazines to the Mental Health Hospitals and Clinics, and we filled fifty speckleware cups with small toiletries, candies and a pair of socks, tied them in colored plastic wrap with a bow and had them passed out by the mental health workers who are charged with assisting the homeless by seeing to their medical needs and trying to get them to go into shelters during inclement weather. It was a very small gesture but perhaps it meant the world to someone. If I’d been out on those streets, it would have meant a lot to me.
    On a larger scale, it’s decidedly odd that our cities have two serious problems, with one being an obvious solution to the other. The first is homelessness. Every city, even small ones of 20k residents have some, and large cities have many. Every city also has homes and other buildings that are vacant due to the spate of foreclosures. Many of the homeless are not really penniless. They have SSI payments of around $650 per month. In too many cities, purchasing even minimal shelter would absorb all of that income, so people live on the street instead. If we could use some of the federal stimulous money coming into cities to purchase vacant properties, then we should create local organizations on the model of Habitat for Humanity, where volunteers do any necessary work, while the people who will be getting housing work along side them, learning the skills necessary to maintain homes once they receive them. Habitat houses are not gifts. The labor for building is supplied by the potential recipients and by volunteers. The people who receive them invest sweat equity in the form of labor into their own or someone else’s home, then pay a monthly mortgage sufficient to cover the cost of the materials for their home. The mortgage payments go into a fund for purchasing additional properties and building additional houses.

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