What Our Homeless Need Most

This article covers the tangible items that a typical concerned and caring citizen could provide that would be of greatest use to a person experiencing homelessness.

A block from home, where every week I gas up a 2008 Mazda S3 (I know…) sits a homeless man who’d always smiled but had never spoken to me, begged or cadged a cigarette. On my fifth trip at about 11:00 in the evening, I asked for the first time if he needed anything. He smiled again. “Anything,” he said. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a restaurant or bar and asked for “anything.” Imagine that. I said, “Like something to eat, or a drink?” “Diet Coke,” he said. So Diet Coke it was.

He’s a personable guy and someone whose position I could see myself in in 40, 50 years—assuming by then I’d maybe been forced by situation or circumstance to call it quits on paying rent or had lost a job, or even been fired while just on the verge of a nice retirement package, and now had little or no access to a stable bed and bath for a few months. Next visit, 7pm, a week later. $40.00 on pump No. 2, and a few minutes later I walked out and handed him a $5.00 ham and turkey sandwich and a $2.49 bottle of water. I’m not rich but this is something so humbling. So simple.

As you help the homeless, it’ll be up to you to gauge the veracity of the stories you’ll hear (and the answers to the simple and helpful questions you’ll hopefully ask) and to validate the person you’re speaking with. I once lent $10 to an obviously employed punk to gas up his pickup. His lawnmower and garden tools were in the truck bed but the sign on his door had no company phone number. He wrote his cell phone number on a slip of paper and handed it to me, said we’d meet again in the next few days. Sure thing. Sure thing. The number was dead and I never saw him again.

There’s a thing about statistics and generalizations that can color our view of people and the world. Only 28% of car accidents involve alcohol. Ironically, if we look through that lens alone, we’d “discover” 72% of car accidents are caused by sober drivers and that we could “reduce car accidents” if no one drove sober.

Social media accounts of motivational money-making quotes and pilfered Warren Buffett advice have tens-, even hundreds-, of-thousands of followers. Most of whom probably fail to realize the odds of becoming a millionaire are only a hair higher than the odds of experiencing homelessness.

With that in mind, here’s how you can help those experiencing homelessness. What goes around comes around and, besides, it’s one of the more humbling things you can do. Almost nothing else so relatively small that you could do for someone produces such a profound effect.

First, A Perspective Shift: What is it Like Being Homeless?

Let’s look at a typical scene that will help us understand what it might be like on the receiving end of whatever you will be providing.

At 7:00pm your smart phone tells you the temperature is going to drop near freezing through the night, and that with wind chill, it is effectively going to be 32 degrees. You sit back, crank up your heater, sip on a nice cup of tea, maybe even light a fire, or lay on a few extra blankets. But imagine if you had no walls to begin with, no heater and that the other amenities mentioned were either inadequate or nonexistent. Well, the US Government would suggest you “avoid going outside during the coldest parts of the day. Well, that’s not always an option. If that night you slept in your backyard (and could only grab three things from the house, would you want help? And what help would you want to be given?) Finally, imagine it was also pouring. The back yard sounds bearable. So for reality’s sake, throw in an additional outdoor dweller per 10-square-feet of yard, every 5th or even 10th of whom are potentially confrontational and occasionally aggressive. Who knows if you’ll wake with the tent you fell asleep in, or a blanket still covering your body. At sunrise, get ready quick because you’ve got a job—yes, between 44% and 60% of homeless people are still working jobs.

General Criteria in Buying Things for a Person Experiencing Homelessness:

  • Small: Small but sufficient is often better than large. Large and bulky items are difficult to store, and everything you provide has to be consumed or carried.
  • Lightweight: If different weights of the same product are available, opt for the lighter version without compromising quality. Nothing is worse than a broken backpack strap or shoes with soles that peel off in a week or two.
  • Necessities: Usability should be considered above “luxury,” though I don’t know that that’s quite the right word. Donuts would be a “luxury,” whereas a sandwich and coffee could be necessities. If you’ve never before conversed with or helped a particular person experiencing homelessness, please don’t assume something’s not a necessity to him or her just because it doesn’t fit your definition. When you live on the street, sometimes things that ease the pain and misery are necessities; not to mention the outright disgust that some of our very lofty losers direct toward people less fortunate than they.

How Can My Company Help the Homeless?

Helping the homeless for publicity’s sake has the bad rap it deserves. Donating because you can and you care is lofty, and few shots to share the joy is alright. Just don’t overdue it. Focus on donating, helping and uplifting and if a company rep comes along every once in a while to tell the story well, you’re golden.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, Royal Caribbean Cruises had a full-time videographer on site for more than 3 weeks, documenting every move, fact and figure. But they also donated to the Bahamas literally millions of dollars worth of aid: 162,000 warm meals, 48,000 pounds of ice, 154,458 bottles of water to the Bahamas, and hired hundreds of locals. [Not to mention, it cost them $27 Million dollars in lost revenue.]

Perfect; tell the world.

Here’s how your company can help the homeless.

  1. Donate Your Professional Services to X Number of Homeless Persons Weekly / Monthly / Quarterly. Are you a Credit Score Repair Specialist? Or a Taxi Service? A Restaurant? A SuperCuts? A cleaning crew? Offer your services to a certain number of persons experiencing homelessness every week or month at no cost. Or offer them a job or paid internship. Coming off the street requires a lot more than bottled water or a good meal. It’s a f—ing journey. It takes work.
  2. Donate to a Homeless Shelter. Do your due diligence on a local homeless shelter and write them a nice big check. Then deliver it with or without fanfare.

    If Disney can donate 0.0016% of 1 year’s revenue for Hurricane Dorian relief in the Bahamas and then follow it up with multiple international press releases, there’s no reason you couldn’t do the same. The Bahamas still received a million dollars in relief aid and the press coverage possibly prompted other corporations to do the same. So if it’s a sizable donation, by all means do it.

    While the IRS limits the amount you can deduct each year for charitable donations, you or our company would generally qualify for a deduction of up to 50% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Consult your tax adviser.
  3. Donate Used Vehicles From the Company Fleet to a Homeless Shelter. Wheels will help your local shelter do more in less time: delivering food, broadening their outreach, running errands.
  4. Set up an Amazon Smile Account for Your Company and Make the Beneficiary of it a Homeless Shelter in Your Area. Because Amazon has 49+ percent of the US e-commerce market and takes in 5% of all retail spend, chances are, your company already makes purchases from them.

    Amazon Smile allows you to access the same products, for the same prices, with the same perks (like 2-day delivery). Amazon set up that the only difference or requisite is that you, the buyer, has to access the site via www.smile.amazon.com. The first time you use it, you’ll need to select a charity (which you can change later), which charitable organization will then receive 0.05 percent of all your company spends on Amazon. EVERY TIME thereafter, you’ll need to log on to smile.amazon.com, as only purchases consciously made on that site generate contributions—at no cost to you. The premise is that Amazon simply wants charitable work to be something people have to continuously keep in mind. Amazon’s explanation is here.

How to Help the Homeless Without Giving Money

  1. Give Water. You can’t go wrong with bottled water.
  2. Give Snacks. Buy ZIP Loc bags and some ingredients in bulk and put together some ZIP lock bags with it, say:
  • Trail mix
  • Beef Jerky
  • Breakfast Bars
  • Chocolate
  • Peanut Butter Crackers
  • Dried fruit
  • Raisins
  • Snack Cups
  • Tuna or Chicken Salad Cracker Kits
  • Something else you yourself would like to snack on
  1. Give Toiletries. Travel size toiletries are an A-plus.
  2. Give Your Extras (not your leftovers). Cull through your closet for warm clothes, shoes, towels, blankets, duffle bags and other items on the list below.
  3. Give Gently Used Clothes.
  4. Empty Bottles and Cans. We drive the same route to work every week day, and along the way is a group of guys spread out along the street with shopping carts, collecting whatever bottles and cans they can get before the City’s recycling trucks can get to the blue bins that line these streets. It’s pretty easy to take the bagful of empty bottles and cans we have, bring it with us and hand it off to one of them, so we do that weekly.
  5. Volunteer. Spend a day or night helping at a church, soup kitchen or shelter. Follow social media hashtags and accounts pertaining to homelessness in your are to keep abreast of upcoming functions .

What to Donate to a Homeless Shelter

If you are going to donate to a homeless shelter, these are the items generality most needed. After your first visit you could inquire as to what else specifically they need. Short of that, you can’t go wrong if providing these:

  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • T-shirts
  • Shoes
  • Sanitary Napkins and Tampons
  • Shampoo, Soap and Conditioner
  • Toothpaste and Tooth Brushes
  • Coats, Gloves and Warm Clothes
  • Blankets
  • Water, bottled
  • Tents, Tarps and Sleeping Mats
  • Sleeping Bags
  • Razors
  • Nail Clippers
  • Cash Contributions
  • Your Time

Complete Incomplete List of What the Homeless Need Most

This is a thorough but generalized list of what a homeless person needs most. The best way to find out what a particular person needs is of course to ask him or her. But short of that, this list may prove helpful. It’s compiled from a cull of what appears most often on social media sites like Reddit and Quora, and in actually speaking to a number of people who were currently or have previously experienced homelessness.

  1. SOCKS, SOCKS, SOCKS; Wool for Warmth and Cotton for Breathability
  2. TAMPONS, SANITARY NAPKINS; Feminine products (but, generally, not menstrual cups)
  3. SNACKS; Trail Mix, Beef Jerky, Breakfast Bars, Peanut Butter Crackers, Dried Fruit, Raisins, Snack Cups, Tuna or Chicken Salad Cracker Kits.
  4. Shoes or boots, sturdy, warm and waterproof.
  5. Backpack, sturdy and durable with strong straps
  6. Bicycle (with a lock or not at all)
  7. Blanket, fleece
  8. Bus pass
  9. Can opener
  10. Water and a canteen for water
  11. Warm Winter Coat or Jacket
  12. T-shirts, Long-sleeved T-shirts
  13. Underwear
  14. Coins, spare change, quarters for a laundromat
  15. Day pass to a Gym for a shower
  16. Duffel bag
  17. Dull colored, worn backpack with good straps
  18. First Aid Kit, Bandaids
  19. Footwear
  20. Garbage Bags
  21. Gas; offer to gas up their car at a station
  22. Safe place to park their car and sleep if they are car homeless
  23. Gloves for warmth and layering
  24. Haircuts
  25. Hat, Baseball caps
  26. Headlamps and batteries
  27. Hotel or Motel room for a night or more
  28. HYGIENE SUPPLIES: Small TSA-sized bottles of: Dry Shampoo, Lip Balm or Chapstick, Toothbrush & Toothpaste, Lotion, Mouthwash, Travel Toothbrush, Hand Sanitizer, Dental Floss, Nail Clippers, Safety Razor and Shaving Cream, Wipes (Unscented baby wipes, wet wipes), Soap (better than shampoo, for its weight and versatility), Brush or Comb, Sunscreen, Anti-Fungal Cream, Deodorant,
  29. Infant formula
  30. Key chain pepper spray for females to clip to belt loop
  31. Lighter and cigarettes (a barter currency on some streets)
  32. List of local services, their hours of operation and phone numbers
  33. Meal cards to decent fast food establishments (SubWay, Burger King)
  34. Money: If you don’t like giving money, consider getting them what they ask for.
  35. Pet food
  36. Candles
  37. PO Box
  38. Poncho, Rain gear
  39. Scarves
  40. Sleeping Bags and Sleeping Pads
  41. Tent and dull colored, non-flashy waterproof tarp (6×8 or similar size)
  42. Toilet Paper
  43. Vitamins
  44. Wallet
  45. Water, Water Bottles
  46. Zip Lock Bags

Preparing to Help the Homeless

Arriving to a gas station or passing a man in the street who needs help requires no preparation, but for a larger coordinated delivery or hand out of goods, some simple preparation benefits everyone.

  1. Put Some Effort Into It: If you’re going to hand out bags, list the contents, use zip loc bags for different items and keep food separate.
  2. Make It a Group Thing. A group of three to five is best, especially if you will be arriving with a large amount of goods. Ones and Twos work as well for the most common good samaritan deeds.
  3. Be Mindful of the Time of Day and How Dark it is Outside. This is a suggested point of common sense; there aren’t all that many areas where walking around at night for a long time feels very safe or comfortable.
  4. Don’t Plan the Big Day on or Around a Holiday. A lavish Christmas breakfast or banquet sounds a lot more festive than it will probably be; one of the problems being that the odds are, you’ll be serving a lot more than the truly homeless. If you know a few people in need of help, by all means, help them out over the holiday and make that special visit they’ll really appreciate. It would make their day. But as a general rule, don’t plan your first big debut for about a week on either side of the holidays so you don’t end up donating to people more greedy than they are needy. We all love free stuff. Only some of us “couldn’t live without it.”
  5. Don’t Arrive With Much Less Than Required to serve mostly everyone. If the location you plan to go to ends up having a much larger group than you anticipated, you may want to move on somewhere else where you won’t come up short and disappoint a majority of people after you’ve run out of things to give. Whether you stay put or move on, if you do run out of something, tell people you’ll try and return and as soon as possible and get names of who was left out. Bring what you can and remember how far simple compassion goes.
  6. Have Fun, Keep it Lighthearted & Helpful. We all have problems and pressing concerns, but with a roof over our heads, a bed to lay in, and a warm shower, we’re likely better off than most.
  7. Assume Humble, Sober & Honest Until Proven Otherwise. Yes, you will statistically be correct in assuming this. (And there are assholes everywhere in suits, but I still try and treat people well and give them the benefit of the doubt.) You’ve got to go out with the right mentality. If you think that every single person experiencing homelessness is a drunk, panhandling, lying criminal, you’re going to fail. Just stay home and join the majority who think homelessness will never affect them.

These Items are Generally Less Useful to Homeless People

Again, everyone’s needs and situation is different, but here are some of the less than helpful items:

  • Hand Sanitizer: This one’s a gamble. It’s good, but best when accompanied by lotion since the sanitizer dries out hands so thoroughly
  • Large Bottles of Anything: Everything you give will have to be consumed (eaten, drank) or carried. The 18 oz bottle of Paul Mitchell is, uh, not so necessary.
  • Soap & Shampoo: They’re usually available in shelters and/or in public restrooms.

What People Experiencing Homelessness Often Don’t Need

At the risk of this coming off a bit inhumane, it has to be said because these are things that generally speaking are going to be less than helpful. You may actually end up endangering or offending rather than helping.

  1. Pity or condescension. Give sympathy, compassion, encouragement, understanding, recognition, assistance and acknowledgement.
  2. Large Sums of Money. Never give a homeless person (a large amount of) money. If you’re feeling particular philanthropic, ask a lone homeless person or family what they need and go get it for them. You could set a budget or ceiling and ask them what they need most.
  3. Non-Concealable Valuables. Consider the potentialities in giving a homeless person something that isn’t concealable and will visually appear very valuable—could a used bicycle serve the same purpose as a flashy brand-new one? Could a less conspicuous backpack serve better than a brightly-colored high-end brandname backpack? They may be robed by others who want it and who will possibly injure or maim then for it. While SAMSHA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, reports that a quarter of homeless Americans have some form of mental illness, and that 1 in 3 (35%) are affected by substance abuse, the odds of the person being negatively impacted by another seeking these golden goods is a factor to consider, as is inadvertently aiding an alcoholic or addict.
  4. Gift Cards. They’re a bit of an inconvenient forms of cash because they require traveling to another very specific location, as well as often never quite being able to use their full face value (who ever uses the last change on a VISA Gift Card—how can you!?), but gift cards for decent fast food establishments like SubWay and Burger King are great.
  5. Food With a Short Shelf Life.
  6. Full-sized Items. Anything you give will most often have to be either consumed or carried; opt for travel-size items.
  7. Your Address. Unless you give this out routinely to acquaintances…
  8. New Clothing (Socks and Underwear Being the Exception). The odds of it being resold (or stolen) are quite high. And since access to laundry facilities is scarce, receiving another similar item in the next few weeks or months is going to likely mean your new clothes will end up in the trash to make way for the new. Out with the new, in with the old.
  9. Large Amounts of Baked Goods. Large amounts of rolls, tortilla shells, bread, cakes, pie, microwavable meals will mostly end up in the trash after a first helping. It just goes badly too quickly.
  10. Hard Foods (Apples for example). Hard foods aren’t the easiest thing to eat when you haven’t had access to a dentist for protracted periods and lack adequate hygiene facilities.
  11. Candy or Sweets. Candy and sweets with high sugar content and little to no nutritional value aren’t amazing.
  12. Weapons. This seems so obvious it isn’t worth mentioning, but knives and some types of razor aren’t helpful. Yes, living on the streets will require smarts and self-defense (drunk and sober assholes pick on the homeless) and it’s advisable they carry some form of defense like a stick or cane, especially while traveling, but your role isn’t to arm anybody.
  13. Unsealed foods, or food they didn’t see you buy or un-package. A certain amount of homeless people have lost trust in this, having been tricked or given spoiled food.


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