More thoughts on food for the homeless…

Hi Sara,

Real quick. Here’s a response I got from a friend up in Wichita who works with homeless (she’s an English teacher, actually, was mine 22 years ago, but she volunteers for the homeless). Insightful stuff that I’ll work to incorporate into the idea of “Box it Up!” I’ll figure something out. Years in stage management taught me that when it doesn’t work one way, it’ll work another. All I can remember is the look on that guy’s face when I gave him that box of food…

We want to be responsible at the same time, of course.

Here’s what she said:

Good idea. Just remember that if food is “left-over”, the risk of food
bourne illness is very real (food’s been out of the fridge or off the stove
for too long) and can kill a person with a supressed immune system. That’s
why restaurants won’t give out left-over food (and lock their dumpsters)–
it is dangerous to the homeless to eat leftover restaurant food after a
certain time frame (usually 30 minutes after it is first served).
Many grocery stores WILL donate left over produce and crushed
crackers/bread. But don’t get dented cans (botulism risk).
Hey, a few suggestions for “Box it up” if you decide to make and distribute
**** Baked potatoes(skin on wrapped in foil — provides heat in winter) and
peanut butter/sugarless jelly sandwiches are good. Also, for those with
peanut allergies, just sugarless jelly sandwiches are good. Sugarless for
the diabetics. If using peanut butter make sure it is creamy (dental
problems can be aggrevated by peanut chunks).
****Fruit is great. Fresh vegies too.
**** Sugar packets — provide quick energy. The sugar packets at the Lord’s
Diner are always depleted by the end of the night — and pockets are stuffed
full. grin
**** If distributing when it is cold: hot tea.
**** Bottled water in summer.
**** Put food in plastic bags if possible (like grocery bags) –these make
good hats in the rain.
**** Give Hefty bags in Winter — used as coats and tarps.

Anyway, just some stuff learned from distributing food on the street. Be
careful, it IS illegal to distribute food in a public place without a food
license. Technically, you are acting as a vendor when giving food to
strangers. Most police look the other way and ignore it, but in some cities
the penalties are pretty severe. The reason being: if a homeless person does
get food poisoning, the city hospital has to treat them and, of course,
cannot recoup the cost from the “restaurant” where the food was served.

Love ya!!!

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him
absolutely no good.” – Samuel Johnson

Hey Jennifer:

I completely agree with your friend, and she is right on about rules that protect the homeless (hence why sometimes I’m not allowed to get that platter of food at some larger conferences/hotels, etc.) That is why groups like Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which have a license, can go out on the streets and deliver food/drink to those on the streets. Most cities have some sort of group/church/volunteer organization like this.

Oh, just to let you know, another thing to do is this:

I carry bottles of water in the car in the summer to hand out at the corners. Most homeless are very dehydrated (and sunburned to a crisp!) and they need water desperately.

Bananas are easy to buy in bunches, and a banana and a bottle of water are great for potassium, rehydration and energy.

For rainy seasons: You can buy 99cent ponchos at Target, Wal-Mart, wherever, and I keep those in the car to hand out, as well. I look for sales on socks, mittens, gloves and pull on knit hats and whenever I find some, I buy an entire box. In the winter, I keep them in the car to hand out as well, or take down to the local shelter. Many of those on the streets end up with frost bite or gangrene simply because they couldn’t keep their fingers and toes warm enough.

You can also ask around your neighborhood, or have a drive at your local elementary school/church/temple for gently worn coats, hoodies, sweaters and scarves to take to the local shelter.

I took a homeless man into an REI in downtown Austin one winter day, a man I found sleeping outside on plastic garbage bags, and his hands were already seared red from the freezing cold. The manager saw me looking for gloves and a wool sweater (they protect the skin best from the elements), and he kindly gave me 30% off so I could warm this man up.

Not everyone is comfortable dealing with the homeless in person. I don’t suggest everyone feel that they have to go out on the streets and work individually; it can be dangerous or upsetting, for those trying to make a difference and for the homeless, as well. People who want to help might start by volunteering in a soup kitchen or at a shelter to get into the rhythm and psychology of those who are displaced. No one likes to be disrespected and working with the homeless in this capacity can help ease volunteers into a greater understanding, patience and compassion.

I’ve learned over the years to approach people with great love and respect, and sometimes people do NOT want to be approached, and that must be respected.

Overall, however, people do NOT want to feel invisible, and the greatest gift we can share with one another as human beings is the capacity to care, to reach out, to make change in this world that benefits those who need care, support and love.


PS. I carry printed out small cards that have the address/phone number of local shelters/food resources to hand out, as well. Many of the homeless are sometimes drifting through with the better weather, and although they learn very quickly the resources of a city, sometimes they DON’T know where these resources are, and it is good to share that info with them.

I know some people don’t like to give out change, but many people will use it to ride the bus or call a shelter or save up to get a room for the night (some shelters charge a small fee for showers, overnight stays, etc.) What is a dollar to one person might mean a night in safety to someone else….

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