I’ve been getting requests on how to donate and/or volunteer as a result of people reading First (Wrong) Impressions. First, thanks! I’m glad the book has made an impact on so many people and I’m happy to hear that it’s inspiring people to give back in their communities.
Impressions is set in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where the homeless situation is unique to its location. Likewise, places like London, Melbourne, Cairo, and New York are all going to have homeless situations unique to their locations. Nevertheless, there are some different ways to help.
Check websites for most-needed items: It’s a challenge figuring out what any shelter needs. A women’s shelter is going to need different items than a men’s shelter, and an animal shelter is going to need yet more different items. Likewise, the seasons and weather impact the shelter’s most urgent needs.
The majority of agencies have websites now that list their needs. When I worked at the Mustard Seed, my list was update every month or two, unless I had an immediate need. The department that looked after clothing, bedding, and blankets often updated their list weekly, based on what had or hadn’t come in.
Consider the big picture: Since the Seed was a drop-in centre, we served an obscene amount of coffee, especially during the winter months. Many offices and church groups did coffee drives for me (I looked after those), and they were amazingly successful and incredibly important. I was so grateful for those donations.
But, here’s a little secret: upstairs we had a 10′x6′x6′ room that was floor to ceiling coffee. All of the cans were labeled by their expiry date and once a month I got volunteers to move the “soon to expire” stuff closer to the front. Whenever that room was so full that I couldn’t walk in it anymore, I called some of the other agencies and offered coffee to them. I always called the Lighthouse (as we called it, because the building had one painted on the exterior) and offer as much as they wanted. They didn’t get as much in donations as us, so I was always happy to share.
After a while, when people asked for to do coffee drives, I asked if they could do “the extras” drive. Sugar, powdered creamer, powdered milk, fresh milk, hot chocolate, caffeinated teas, herbal teas, medicinal teas, and stir sticks. Those were all items that go with having a coffee bar, but very often I had to buy those out of my budget, which took away from my hot meals and special event meals budget.
Give what is in line with your beliefs and passions. Not everyone is comfortable giving condoms and pregnancy tests, so donate those if safe sex is important to you. If stopping the spread of HIV is important, get in touch with your local street work support group (in Edmonton, they are called Street Works).
If you are not uncomfortable with that, there are still options for you. If infant care is important to you, donate baby formula, disposable diapers, etc. If spreading your faith is important, contact an inner city church and ask if they have need for religious literature, tracts and pamphlets of support*, bibles, etc.
*Do not, please, give Chick Tracts. They are highly offensive. Giving a tract to a homeless person telling them they are going to hell is perhaps one of the worst ways to spread your beliefs. Plus, it makes a huge assumption that a homeless person can’t possibly be a practicing Christian, which is one of the most offensive things I’ve ever witnessed. Don’t do it.
Consider the season: Christmas was the best and worst time of the year. I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from the hatred that seeped in my bones over Christmas. Donations upon donations of stuff poured in and everyone struggled to find someone who needed it. There was no room to store anything. There was no room to put anything. As one of my co-workers had said, “Christmas is just stuff to me now.”
My phone would ring off the hook in December with people asking if they could serve a meal on Christmas Day. We were closed. I’d let them know I had almost no volunteers for January. The reply? “No thanks. I only want to serve on Christmas Day.”
Charities often struggle in January and February for help, and in the summer months for, oh, just about everything. Have a Christmas in July fundraiser at work.
Be the “I know someone who knows someone” person: I had a handful of these folks. I didn’t call on them often, but when I was really, really stuck, I called them up and they made it happen. When I was short $15,000 and had no meal groups to pay for and to volunteer to serve meals, they got some departments together and all came with $1000 cheques to pay and serve a meal. When I left the Seed, I called in every one of those favours and threw a stunning pizza, wings, and pop cribbage night party, complete with over $1000 in prizes (most were small ones…$2 to Tim Hortons, coffee mugs, etc, but it meant that everyone got a prize, even the losers).
There are so many organizations out there that need help, be it money, stuff, or your time. There is a match out there for you. It might take a bit of trial and error before you land in a place that’s a perfect fit, but take your time. It’s one of the best ways to learn, grow, and look at the world through a different set of eyes.