Something is better than nothing - DIY "homeless kits"

Something is better than nothing - DIY "homeless kits"

I generally try to keep food in my car, if for no other reason than that I now parent an ever-emptying vortex that refuses to be photographed (Sparky is a full-blown teenager – there must be an event horizon just behind his epiglottis…) I typically kept small bags of peanuts, trail mix or granola and bottled water in the door wells and just hand them over when someone asks.

IMG_20160121_173318About a year ago, I was visiting my hometown of Cincinnati, and ran into a local friend whose family had started delivering necessities to Cincinnati’s homeless population. Interestingly, her last straw was a young man who – by a staggering coincidence – had a “spot” at the end of my street. I’d dropped off the odd bag of groceries for him only to find he was the inspiration for an entire system designed to help the critical, immediate needs of the homeless living on the street. The social service system in my hometown leaves much to be desired, even though there are many, many kind and energetic people like the Hunters, who took me along on one of their “runs,” where they literally hunted down “street people” they’d come to know to deliver food, clothes and other necessities. (Quotes because “people” shouldn’t need a qualifier.)

I was inspired to be more strategic about the food I kept in the car, so I could share it with anyone who asked…and I thought my granola was doing well until someone kindly pointed out that he couldn’t chew (dental hygiene being significantly difficult when living “rough.”) I realized that strategy for protein wasn’t working.

It’s a particular challenge to find things that work, because you can’t assume access to anything: utensils, water, a heat source. I started giving single-serve tubs of peanut butter with bags of pretzels, or those little tuna or chicken salad meal kits, but those got to be clumsy to hand out the window in traffic. I finally sat down and created a more formal package – although I’m not done yet, I’ve put in a bulk order for string backpacks, and am going to get some plastic ponchos, mylar emergency blankets and socks as soon as I find a source.


Here’s what my pictured kit contains: A protein (individual PB or tuna,) a juice box, squeeze applesauce or a fruit leather, a packet of instant coffee, a”wet wipe,” disposable gloves, a packet of UrgentRX headache powder, a couple ultra-thin maxi pads (I decided that it was easier to always include them than not) and a pocket tissue pack. All this is simply put in a brown paper lunchbag and stapled shut, and kept in the passenger seat well in a reusable grocery bag to hand out quickly.  All told, this set me back about $40 for 8 “kits,” give or take since some items had more in a package than others. I found this site to be useful in figuring out what to add.

Why “kits?” I’ve recently become more educated than I really prefer in just how difficult it is to be homeless. I befriended a young family who are “precariously housed.” (Precarious housing is social-work-speak for couch-surfing.) She is an incredibly lovely woman, a significantly better mother to her kids than I am to mine, and smart, but due to circumstances well beyond her control, at the moment she has nowhere to go and no way to work.

I’ve known her since October, and during that time have spent a minimum of 20 hours a week getting her ACCESS to services. You know, the “free stuff” that “anybody” can get. It requires intake interview after intake interview after intake interview – all of which have to be done with two energetic toddlers in the room – none of which are located anywhere convenient, or even near each other – and all of which have some sort of “requirement” that has to be fulfilled and proved with a return visit before the REAL intake, e.g. a doctor’s visit, proof that another service turned you down, or my personal favorite: a “letter of support” from someone – because, OBVIOUSLY, nobody homeless could possibly get to a social service agency WITHOUT HELP.  I cannot imagine what it must be like if you are ACTUALLY on the street. Grrr.

Am I mad? You bet I’m mad – we have gone off the rails when it comes to offering help to our fellow human beings, America. I’m beginning to believe that we are more vested in systems that APPEAR to help than we are in actually helping, and the people actually providing services are caught in the middle, doing the best they can to get everyone’s needs met without enough time, money, or manpower.  All that is to say that nobody is homeless for fun – I am very privileged to have a very cozy and nice home, and only had to “couchsurf” once or twice during college. All I’m doing is providing research, transportation, occasional toddler-herding and sympathy. Let me tell you – other than getting to spend time with my friend and her sweet kids – it is absolutely, completely, FRUSTRATING IN THE EXTREME.

I can’t believe the grace with which my friend manages her situation; I’d be flat-out bonkers (frankly, I had ONE toddler and WAS flat-out bonkers and had all my needs met!) Anybody with stories about “welfare mothers” clearly never stood in line at the DHS, which is frighteningly similar to the Records Department in Brazil.

So, I can’t change the world – I can’t even make it respectable for one family – but if it’s the best I can do, I will offer a band-aid.

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