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With an estimated 7.9 million unemployed and over 500,000 homeless in the U.S., we are seeing an immense amount of our population in desperate need for basic necessities. Sometimes, we feel pressure when we are walking down the street or stopped at a light and people in are obvious need or asking for some kind of assistance.
Many times, we’ve been told by others that we shouldn’t help the homeless because we don’t know what they’re really going to spend money on, or if what we give will even help them at all. The assumption has been made that they’re addicted to drugs or will try to take advantage of us somehow. The truth is, yes, some of them may actually be addicted to drugs, or have mental issues that are not being served by public programs or private insurance or society at large. That should not preclude us from having compassion in our hearts or understanding. It is okay to share.
Our interactions with nonprofit organizations and individuals helping people on the street through our own initiatives, have found that the majority of people we have helped do not want anything more than dignity, respect and basic necessities. They do not want to hurt us, rob us, or spend any assistance on anything except survival.
What can we do? In addition to looking around in your car or through your pockets for something extra at a stoplight or a crosswalk, there are other ways we have found both through community or individual efforts to help the less fortunate. People come together with big hearts rallying others to help provide a modicum of comfort and dignity.
Late October in 2012 , I was terrified for my family and my neighbors in Collingswood, New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy. I had gathered up supplies in case of an emergency where we wouldn’t have access to clean water, the store or the hospital. Having lived in Miami, Florida for five years as a child, I knew the damage that hurricanes could do.
When I went to stores, racks were virtually empty as it always is when a storm warning is issued. The night the hurricane came, we hunkered down in our home listening to the howling, fierce winds. Thankfully, we escaped major damage except for a few downed trees and electric lines in our small town compared to our neighbors closer to the Jersey shore and all up along the East Coast as well as various points inland.
When I watched the news reports, I was overcome with emotion, and I still am just thinking about it. I made frantic phone calls to my friends who lived in the New York metro area and the Jersey Shore and many of them did not have any way to get basic necessities or even emergency supplies. Many of them lost homes or knew someone who had and they were dealing with flooding. They could not get food or clean water since their vehicles had been deluged in the flooding or swept away altogether. Many areas were closed due to the danger they posed to citizens and boundaries were guarded by law enforcement.
At the time, I ran a local neighborhood group called Hip Citizens of Collingswood. My friend, Tricia Burrough, and I both offered to have our homes serve as drop off points, as many of us were grateful for our good luck and were motivated to help people who did not escape such damage and loss. The whole community rallied with us or their own ways to bring relief to others.
We put out a call for help in the group and through our respective personal networks and a few friends in media also came over to cover our efforts to help get more donations. Another friend with whom I used to work at Studio LuLoo, Sara O’Brien, let us borrow her vintage RV for as long as we needed. We’d share the RV, as she was also motivating a team in her neighboring town of Oaklyn. Unitarian friends, Ed and Kate from Philadelphia also donated a POD unit to hold the immense amount of donations we were getting. Both units were filled several times over and the local fire department waived a permit so that we could keep these very much-needed storage units on the street across from my home. We got so inundated with donations, we had to also start storing at local restaurants and a great community-minded coffeehouse called The Treehouse in nearby Audubon, NJ. Donations also came from all over the country, thanks to an Amazon wish list I’d set up and the drug policy reform movement really came through in their support via that list.
People volunteered to pay for gas and offered to drive with and for us. We made several trips to Far Rockaway, the Bronx, Brooklyn, New York City, Jersey shore and flooded bay towns, various eastern Pennsylvania towns suffering from loss of electricity and unseasonably cold temperatures. My dear friend, Abby Fagan, and I also drove my car and a rental U-Haul van to deliver to a relief point in a church parking lot near the Jersey Shore. I cannot tell you how emotional it was to see all of these people in varying states of shock and despair.
A year earlier at Occupy Philadelphia, I saw the same kind of generosity from people. At City Hall, Occupy also tried to build temporary small homes for the homeless population. I was really moved to see that free food was given to anybody who needed it or wanted it, regardless of social status. And there was lots of it; people were pulling up on the curbs of JFK Boulevard running boxes and bags overflowing with food, drink and medical supplies back-and-forth every day from morning until night during the entire occupation. “Thank you for what you’re doing,” they’d say to the volunteers as they handed off donations.
I moved to the south Denver metro area almost two years ago. In the first few months I lived here, I didn’t really know a lot of people outside of the cannabis movement and industry. Some dispensaries and organizations support patients and refugees when they first get here by raising funds, or providing informational resources that lead them to lifesaving medicine and basic necessities like the Cannabis Patients Alliance. I also sought out groups that were not associated with the movement or industry who helped feed homeless people, and that led me to the Denver Peanut Butter Plan and The Delores Project.
The Denver Peanut Butter Plan gathers volunteers together at the Hebrew Educational Alliance once a month in Denver, which provides a rather large space for the ever-increasing amount of volunteers who want to help feed the hungry in the city. On average, about 5000-6300+ sandwiches are assembled using donations from individuals, businesses and civic organizations. Each person is asked to donate one jar of peanut butter and one jar of jelly/jam. Also needed are sandwich bags, latex or plastic gloves (for food safety).
Volunteers deliver to individuals in need directly on the street but also to agencies who have soup kitchens and pantries like Urban Peak – a homeless youth shelter, Volunteers of America locations, the Samaritan House – a family homeless shelter, among many others. Zev Barnett, board chair and director of DPBP can be seen at the once-a-month assemble & distribute events zipping around coordinating core volunteers and directing drivers to locations throughout the city with his extensive list of places who serve the community.
The Dolores Project is a women’s homeless shelter in Denver. According to their website, “It is named for Dolores Big Boy, a Lakota woman who frequently lived on the streets of Denver. Her situation was complicated by health, developmental and substance abuse issues as well as physical and sexual violence. Although Delores sought aid from various Denver agencies, sadly, she fell through the cracks in the system. Dolores died while living on the streets June 8, 1999. In forming the shelter in 2000, we chose to honor her memory so that we would always continue our work with the commitment to ensuring safe shelter for every woman and support for those in transition.”
I volunteered to serve dinner at Delores Project and often drop off donations. I’ve gathered donations from neighborhood association groups, local friends as well as sandwiches provided by efforts of the Denver Peanut Butter Plan. It is truly a wonderful place.
In Portland, Oregon, there is a young boy by the name of Dusty, a nine-year-old who volunteered with his family in homeless shelters and soup kitchens in Philadelphia since he was five years old. His family moved to Portland, Oregon and the shelters and programs there said he was too young to help, which made him sad, so he had an idea of trying to do it himself. With the help of his family, Dusty Sacks of Hope was born. They make bagged lunches, then he and his family go into Portland and pass them out to homeless people on the streets. I reached out to my friend Joanne who owns Martian Arts Tattoo Studio and they had a fundraiser/food drive over the holidays for Dusty’s project. Dusty has also been covered by local news for his efforts. His family intends to form a non-profit organization so donations can be tax-deductible, but for now they’re starting small.
Helping people in need is fulfilling, appreciated and not at all hard. I’m reminded of a quote I recently read by Angelina Jolie which explains this philosophy perfectly: “I think we all want justice and equality, a chance for a life with meaning. All of us would like to believe that if we were in a bad situation someone would help us.”