Holiday-Giving Advice from the Homeless

Soho's Soup KitchenWhen I was a kid in the deep-freeze known as wintertime Western New York, my grandmother told me about an incident. She was shopping on Main Street, looking at a display window full of holiday gifts. A man came out of the liquor store next door, holding a small brown paper bag. After taking only a step or two, he lost his balance on a patch of unseen ice. The bag dropped from his hand, and there was the sound of breaking glass.

Grandma said,

He just stood there for a minute. Then he shook his head, slow, and he said, ‘Christmas, you came, and you went.’

Of course, knowing Grandma, I’m guessing she has slipped him a couple of bucks to bring Christmas back. But that’s not the point. And nobody is suggesting that liquor is always the best choice for everybody’s holiday celebrations. That’s not the point either. The point is, it stuck in my mind for more than 50 years: “Christmas, you came, and you went.”

What brought this on? Eric Sheptock did, by courageously publishing a piece called “Donating to the Homeless at Christmas.” This Washington, D. C., writer is a brave man, because one of the hardest things to do in this world is to tell your benefactors that they’re doing it wrong. Not that he is ungrateful. Speaking of the housed citizens who generously give cash and food, and those who donate time as volunteers, Sheptock says,

Some give from the heart. Others may do it to appease their conscience. Or it might be a tax write-off. Regardless of the reason, we’ll take ’em all — and appreciate them all.

But it can be a problem when so much giving is all lumped together into the holiday season. People experiencing homelessness can get six meals on a holiday, which might be helpful if they could somehow store and keep the extra food for future use — except they can’t.

When Sheptock talks about the do-gooders, he’s not putting anybody down. It’s just a simple word for people who get out there and do some good. But how do you tell the do-gooders that their kindest impulses are slightly misdirected? People who have something to give also have a very strong desire to make sure that nobody goes hungry on Thanksgiving or Christmas. And that’s great. But Sheptock has some ideas about how the bounty could be coaxed into stretching farther, through more careful planning.

Sheptock blows the whistle on the tendency of some homeless people to take more than they need. When the vans and pickup trucks full of blankets, boots and other supplies come around to the parks and other distribution points, the mood can approach anarchy. Sheptock says,

As far as the hoarding is concerned, shelter staff (which sometimes consists of homeless people) is notorious for ‘getting theirs off the top’ when donations come in. They often get more than they need and they always get the cream of the crop.

It is truly educational to read Sheptock’s analysis of the traditional giving systems, and his suggestions about how they could be improved for greater effectiveness and fairness. He has the street cred to back up his ideas about spreading out the generosity so it won’t be a case of “Christmas, you came, and you went.” This would benefit everyone: the people in need, and the people who give from limited resources, who would like their gifts to do the most possible good.

The website where Eric Sheptock’s writings are found is called STREATS, which stands for Homeless Individuals Striving To Reach Educate And Transform Society’s views on homelessness while simultaneously Striving To Reach Educate And Transform Self.

Here is one of his insights about people experiencing homelessness:

They tend to enjoy pleasant company (I especially enjoy that.) Many of us homeless like to spend hours on end just talking to the groups of people who come to serve us. We also love to sing with these groups. So, even if you don’t have any material goods to give out, come and give your love. I promise we won’t fight over that.


Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless would like to thank the reviewers who have taken the time to contribute their thoughtful comments to the discussion of Looking Up at the Bottom Line and the Universal Living Wage. They include Steven Samra of Stone Soup Station, Esther Robards-Forbes of Westlake Picayune, and W. D. of The Austin Chronicle. The review written by Ellen, who writes under the pen name of “Confessions of an Overworked Mom,” appears online at blogcritics.org and at seattlepi.com.


Source: “Donating to the Homeless at Christmas,” EricSheptock.com, 11/08/10
Image by gemb1 (Gemma Bardsley), used under its Creative Commons license.

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