One of the biggest struggles about running a homeless shelter isn’t the clients we deal with; it’s actually the gargantuan amount of junk we get donated to us every single day that my staff have to sift through for hours on ends just to make sure we can separate quality donations from clearly-this-person-just-needs-a-garbage-can-donations.
I will be honest: when I first started my job, even though I had worked with the homeless population for 3 years by then, I strangely had the attitude of “beggars can’t be choosers.” I might’ve even said that to my staff once. But as I got to know the people we work with on a deeper level, I really could not see them as “beggars” anymore. As you begin to learn their individual stories, it becomes hauntingly real that there isn’t much that separates you — the graduate level employed person with an income — and the people who need homeless shelters.
But, this isn’t going to be a blog post about the homeless families I work with. I want to focus on the people who can either help us the most or hurt us the most.
We get donations every day at the shelter. Sometimes they are things like bags of old clothes or sometimes they are full cribs and children’s furniture. But for every really quality item we get, we also get maybe three times as much broken toys, dirty ripped clothes, outdated or broken electronics, and even worse, expired food. I sometimes see the people who are bringing these items, and they try their best to sneak into our doors, gingerly drop off their donations and sneak right back out. Some even have the audacity to fill out a donation receipt for themselves, claiming their donation had an in-kind value of thousands of dollars.
But don’t get me wrong: we have some fabulous donors who are committed to giving really useful and quality items to the people we work with. I just wish everybody had that same kind of value for human dignity as they do.
We get so many donations, my staff bags it up and stores it behind my office to donate to another organization.
You see, those fabulous donors have the same understanding about our clients that we do: people deserve quality things no matter how much money they make or no matter what their history is. This doesn’t mean that every single person needs to have brand-name products or that there isn’t value in secondhand goods. What this means is that if you and your family don’t want to eat expired food, what makes you think that the homeless families that we work with do? If you don’t want to give your toddler a broken toy, what makes you think a homeless single mother of four wants to give her three-year-old that broken toy? If you have no use for that Apple computer monitor with a giant crack down the screen, what do you think any of the clients in our shelter can do with it? The point is: our fabulous donors see that we treat the people we work with as if they were our own.
Yes, maybe there are some homeless people out there who don’t really care how old and ripped up their clothing is, and maybe there are some homeless people who will eat expired food, but at the end of the day for those of us who work with these people on a daily basis, we strive to see them be the best they can be. If we want our clients to move on to permanent housing, they need to be able to get jobs. If we want to see them get jobs, they need to be able to dress amazingly for their interviews. If they need to be able to dress professionally for interviews, they need to get real quality items from donations.
Do you see the equation here? Quality donations from well-meaning donors lead to ending homelessness. It’s as simple as that. So if you want to help end homelessness, I suggest you start by giving really good donations to your local shelter. Don’t use homeless people as a dumping ground for your spring cleaning. Gift people with the gift of future success.