To those in need: Blessing Bags, shelter help among ways to aid homeless
By Ginny Monk
Photo by Mitchell Masilun
December 5, 2017
In 2015, Leslie Dean Drake’s friend found him dead in a van.
Drake, 54, was found with his fists balled up on his chest in a 2000 Chrysler Town & Country van in west Little Rock, according to reports. Drake, who was homeless, died from exposure to the cold, police told reporters at the time.
About 700 homeless people die from hypothermia each year in the United States, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
As the temperatures drop, local shelters are seeing increases in the number of people trying to get out of the elements, say advocates at three organizations serving the homeless.
Mandy Davis, director of Jericho Way, a day center for the homeless at 3000 Springer Blvd., Little Rock, says they are serving 100 to 130 people each day and preparing for higher numbers as well as trying to get people into shelters as quickly as possible.
“We really are trying to house more and more with the cold weather coming, either in apartments or getting them into programs or shelters,” Davis says.
More than half of the 990 homeless people counted in central Arkansas’ most recent census of that population are living outside.
While this need is being met by a drive to volunteer that tends to peak during the holiday season, many of the volunteers’ interests are in areas that are already covered.
Davis says lots of people want to come serve meals on holidays, although groups tend to take care of those meals weeks in advance. Those interested in volunteering to serve or cater meals ahead of time can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jericho Way is usually in need of hygiene supplies such as hotel-size shampoo, soap, lotion, washcloths and towels because they have a facility available for showers, Davis says: “We are always looking for those specific things because we go through those so much.” This year, the first time they opened the basement for showers, they served 50 people.
Ben Goodwin is the executive director for Our House, 302 E. Roosevelt Road, Little Rock. He says Our House, which has a long-term shelter and several other services for the homeless or near-homeless, always has volunteer opportunities for people interested in mentoring children or tutoring adults and helping them get their GED or train for a job.
Most of their meal serving is done by regular volunteers who come in once a month and provide Our House residents with an evening meal, Goodwin says. His goal is to get people to sign up for a regular night to provide a meal.
“There’s more interest in serving meals around the holiday than we can meet,” Goodwin says.
For Christmas, Our House will have its Adopt a Family program. Families participating get to create a list of things they want and need. Volunteers can “adopt” a family and buy some of the items from the list. Our House wraps them for the families’ Christmases.
This year there are more than 130 families participating in the program.
“Our parents are all working really hard,” Goodwin says. “They’re working on a shoestring budget trying to claw their way out of homelessness.”
Another program is Stocking Stuffers. For this program, Our House compiles lists of things needed for programs. A participant will get a list of 10 items to spend $100 or more.
One list includes items such as shampoo, baby diapers, laundry detergent and a Home Depot gift card.
Those interested in signing up for either program or donating to Our House can visit ourhouseshelter.org.
The Van, an organization that drives around Little Rock to take supplies and food to the homeless, is selective about who goes out in the vans, founder Aaron Reddin says.
People often start volunteering with The Van by working in the garden or sorting donations, he says.
The Van has a wish list on Amazon.com for things it needs, and several drop-off locations around town for donations, which can be found at theoneinc.org, Reddin adds.
Reddin says that although he will sometimes give homeless people money when they ask, he understands that many people are apprehensive to do that.
“But I also do this everyday, and I know a lot of the people that are out here,” he says.
One option for people who want to give something to homeless people they encounter is to give “blessing bags,” packing a gallon bag with supplies to hand out.
Advocates say when blessing bags are donated to their organizations, they usually tear them apart to give the items out based on need.
Reddin says it would be better for people to develop relationships with homeless people they come across and find out what they need.
“Get to know Jim Bob and maybe when he sees you tomorrow, he’s going to recognize you and trust you a little better,” Reddin says. “And talk about the things that he needs as opposed to just everyone else feeling better.”
Goodwin and Davis say they think blessing bags are a good idea for individuals to carry with them.
Here are a few things that advocates say are good to put in a blessing bag:
Reddin says two of the things he sees people need the most often, especially in the colder months, are socks and underwear.
• Hand warmers
The Global Homeless Backpack Network, a Santa Fe, N.M., group, recommends putting in hand warmer packets. As it gets colder, people living outside have trouble keeping hands and feet warm.
Many people who are homeless do not have any identification to use to apply for housing or a job. They might need a few dollars to get that process started, Goodwin says.
• Bottled water
Hydrating the Homeless, a group that works to provide water bottles to the homeless and is based in Houston, states that as many as two out of three homeless people may not have access to clean drinking water.
• Granola bars
It is common for people who are homeless to have poor oral hygiene, and to eat foods that are not healthy because they are cheaper, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine Committee on Health Care for Homeless People. Granola bars are nutritious and the soft ones are easy to chew.
• Bug spray
Reddin says, especially during the summer, unsheltered people often ask for bug spray or sunscreen to protect them from the elements.
Many local shelters provide hygiene items such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, and Reddin and Davis say it is more efficient to take supplies like these to organizations that help the homeless.
Reddin says, “I do want the collective of resources to be organized in a way where a guy doesn’t end up with 200 toothbrushes sitting outside his tent.”
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