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More Stuff About Stuff

Pulling CartDuring this materialistic holiday season, there is more to say about belongings. Coats, for instance. Viking Moving and Storage in New York has a long-standing tradition that helps people experiencing homelessness. It sponsors an annual Coat Drive, and this is one of the interesting facts the company shares with the public:

90% of homeless adults need a new, warm coat each winter because they have no place to keep one over the summer months.

Where do all the old coats go? Are they all so worn and soiled that they can’t be refurbished? Doesn’t anybody sort them out and dry-clean the salvageable ones and save them till next year? What a waste, if they are all just thrown away.

And what about the “Element S(urvival)” coat that converts into a sleeping bag? Whether this remains a handcrafted item made by the inhabitants of homeless shelters, or somehow goes into mass production, the intention is to distribute these coats as widely as possible to people experiencing homelessness. What happens at the end of winter? Will they all just be thrown away? Do we want all that Tyvek insulation in the landfill? Are these coats recyclable? Or will there be a place for each person to store the coat until next winter?

Slight digression on the subject of clothing: In Austin, Texas, the Thermal Underwear Drive is still in progress. Please consider donating to it, or an equivalent program in your area.

A solid citizen who needs four pieces of luggage for a weekend vacation will get all upset about a person experiencing homelessness, whose total possessions fit into a jumbo-sized trash bag. Whether stuff is worth having is not for somebody else to judge. People should be able to have the stuff they need, or think they need. (Within certain limits. No dead animals, for instance. But housed people are not supposed to have those either.)

What happens when you suddenly (or slowly and painfully) become a family experiencing homelessness? What happens to all your special things? The knickknacks that relatives gave you, the beautiful objects from friends and lovers, family photo albums, the kids’ school projects. With any luck, you can talk a friend or relative into keeping a few boxes in their garage, where your stuff may or may not be stolen or watersoaked, or eaten by rats.

If a family loses its housing in warm weather, the cold will eventually come again. You really need to keep the kids’ winter clothes. Surely some day you will have a kitchen again, and need your pots and pans. If you’re lucky enough to have a computer or a decent stereo system, trying to hang onto those should not be an unreasonable desire. Of course, many people facing homelessness sell everything. If they don’t, critical people think they should. Even if it means settling for 10 cents on the dollar, for things that will be an expensive hassle to replace.

To maintain any kind of hygiene, social acceptability, and personal pride, there is a certain irreducible amount of possessions a person needs. To maintain any kind of civilized existence, you just plain need stuff, and a place to keep it, either short-term, long-term, or both. Families need stuff, single people need stuff, and even if you can’t use it right now, someday you might once more have a living space to use it in. How can you let that stuff go? You can’t carry it around. Sometimes, if there is any money at all coming in, you can rent storage. Do you buy storage or food? There are a million Sophie’s Choices to make, a million stories out there. The homeless are not an amorphous mass.

There used to be lockers in bus stations and train stations, but no more. Another casualty of the drug war, no doubt. Horrified by the idea that somebody might keep a stash in a locker, the people in charge would naturally want to remove any opportunity for anyone to leave anything, no matter how innocent, in a locker. Between that and the 9/11 paranoia, lockers are disappearing from the public scene, if they haven’t already.

A few days ago we talked about former basketball star Ray Williams, who now has a job and an apartment after a long spell of homelessness. One of his misfortunes was that a storage facility auctioned off his furniture and other belongings — though it apparently gave him a nine-month grace period to pay back rent, which is unprecedented generosity.

Back in July, it was reported that, aside from the found wreck that Williams slept in, he actually owned a roadworthy Chevy Tahoe. Unfortunately, his working vehicle was being held by a repair shop that needed its $550 bill paid. In October, when Williams was about to leave Florida for Mt. Vernon, Tim Povtak published a followup story. By the time this story appeared, the repair shop bill had escalated to $2,900. That’s how it is to be destitute. Even when you don’t buy anything, stuff costs you money. Even when you don’t have access to your stuff, it costs money to hold onto it.

This comes (with permission to share) from Sam Crespi of Women Who Dare, a note about when she lived in Los Angeles:

There was a young man who’d worked for the Peace Corps. He rented an abandoned gas station downtown, across the street from the homeless theater… I can’t quite remember what he called it, but I think it was Planet Earth. He realized that there were homeless men who could pick up jobs unloading trucks in the neighborhood, and that what kept them from doing it was they’d likely lose their belongings, which they’d to try to hide somewhere, usually unsuccessfully.

So he found a bunch of school type lockers on the cheap and installed them around the station and that solved that problem. Someone gave him some furniture (chairs and some sofas, small tables), someone else game boards (chess, checkers, etc). We brought an old oil drum so they could have a fire at night. Sometimes we brought hot food. A small boy from Salvador with his mother, both of whom were living in a cardboard box, came by sometimes. By then there was a TV, and I started renting films for him.

What I remember is how much it meant for these people to be respected — talked with as they were more than someone without a face. They felt nourished by that theater, by the games, the conversation. It gave them a chance for a short time to leave behind all the rest.

Reactions?

Source: “About Us – Newsroom,” A1FirstClass.com, 01/10
Source: “The Nomadic Life of Former Knicks Captain Ray Williams,” Fanhouse.com, 10/11/10
Image by moriza (Mo Riza), used under its Creative Commons license.

  1. […] connect with people experiencing homelessness. They had one specific purpose in mind: to learn what possessions people hold onto when everything else has to be jettisoned. The writer is John Nova Lomax, the […]