I organized an outreach for people who were homeless in Boulder, Colo., during the 2008-09 school year. After getting advice from a local non-profit, then called The Carriage House Community Table (now Bridge House), a dozen students from the University of Colorado and I spent a few nights handing out tarps and blankets on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall.
Around the same time, I learned that a friend of mine kept Ziploc bags full of peanuts in his car to give to people holding signs at intersections. He had never enjoyed the “dilemma” of what to do at a stoplight when encountering someone asking for help — you know, “Should I give them cash or not?” He thought it might be nice to put some bags of supplies and information in his car ahead of time so he would always have something to give people asking for help.
These kits help create a win-win situation by “humanizing the drive-by.” They give drivers a chance to talk to and hopefully help people they might otherwise ignore. People “flying signs” get a few items they might need, and, just as importantly, get treated with consideration. The more you localize and customize these kits, the more useful they’ll be.
The average cost is about $5 per kit. Teaming up with friends, family or coworkers to buy the main items of the kit in bulk can make the per-kit cost cheaper. If you’re doing this individually, the cost will be greater up-front, but if you buy in bulk you can make a bunch of kits at once and keep them in your trunk.
- Large Ziploc bag — Holds many of the food, toiletries, etc., listed below, and doubles as a waterproof storage container that can be re-used.
- Bottle of water — Plastic ones are cheap and reusable, but you could also consider going through your cupboards and including a good, unused water bottle of yours.
- Rain jacket — A yellow pullover one (very cheap) or a nicer one works.
- First aid kit — A small one could come in handy.
- Toothbrush — A travel one or an unused spare one from your closet.
- Toothpaste — The small tubes work (again, they’re very cheap).
- Non-perishable snack/meal — Examples include granola bars and trail mix. If you have a bigger budget, you could go to your local Army surplus store and by some MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) or similar prepackaged meals. The more portable, the better. Stay away from chocolate or other ingredients that can melt and make a mess inside a pocket or a pack.
- Emergency drink mix — AKA “Vitamin Enhanced Drink Mix” packets, these help prevent dehydration.
- Hand sanitizer — So our new friends can have their snack without worrying about unwashed hands.
- Lip balm — A favorite item according to the folks we’ve talked to.
- Journal and pencil — It’s helpful to have something to write on and with. Could be a small pocket spiral or something fancy.
- Local “Help” card — This is probably the most useful item in the kit. Some non-profits or counties provide business-sized cards for potential clients in their area. Call your local health and human services department to ask if they have anything like this card to include in your kit. Tell them you want something small and portable, not a book report! If they don’t and local non-profits don’t either, make your own! It will take some research and some effort to include accurate, up-to-date information about relevant services, and to lay the card out in a way that’s readable, but it will be very worth it for folks you meet. Who knows? Your local social services department might even agree to print and distribute your cards once they see them helping clients.
- Bus tokens or tickets — Many of the people I talk to say they need help getting somewhere in the greater Denver metro area. RTD, our local transportation district sells bus and light-rail tokens as well as more pricey 10-ride ticketbooks. I try to keep a few bus passes on hand in case someone needs to make a job interview or see a doctor on the other side of town.
- Tarp — According to my formerly homeless friend Tim, a good tarp is one of the most prized and important possessions of people who are homeless. It keeps them dry, summer and winter, and can be used for shelter in a pinch.
- A framed backpack — People who are homeless or on the road need something sturdy for their stuff. Maybe you or someone you know has an extra backpack or you could go garage-sale shopping to find one.
- Cell phone — The ability to easily communicate with service providers is something most of us take for granted. However, some people on the street or on the road can’t afford a cell phone. You could buy a cheap, buy-minutes-as-you-go phone
- Sandals — Crocs are big here in Colorado, but any kind of sandal will do. They come in handy when people use communal showers at shelters and are nice to put on after a long day on their feet.
- Pack — If the items in your kit take up too much space to fit in your Ziploc bag, put them in one of the canvas shopping bags or small backpacks you have around the house.
- Something to read — If you’re a person of faith, you might find it meaningful to include a small book of Scriptures with an inscription pointing to passages meaningful to you. Otherwise, you might want to include a small used book you’ve enjoyed reading.
- Brief conversation — This isn’t something tangible, but a conversation could be what the person you see on the side of the road needs the most. I routinely say “Hi” and wave, even when I’ve temporarily run out of kits to give. Questions you could ask are, “What’s your name?”, “Where are you staying?” or “Where are you heading?” When I have an extra “help” card, I usually ask if the person knows about or has tried to access the services on the card.
- TBD — That stands for “To Be Determined.” Use your best judgment and be safe, but also be creative! Ask yourself what you would need or want if you were the one with a sign at an off-ramp. It never hurts to ask your local social services or non-profits that serve people in need in your area (for example, shelters, rescue mission, churches, etc.) for their suggestions, too.
- Sunscreen — It’s easy to get sunburned standing outside for long periods of time.
- Socks — For people who do a lot of walking, having a good pair of clean socks is vital. Cotton ones are good for the summer. Wool ones are good for the winter.
- Blanket — A thick, water-resistant one for the winter. A thin one for the summer.
- Sleeping bag — People on the street usually have one, but they get lots of use and wear out quickly.
- Stocking cap — Help keep people warm in the winter.
- Gloves — Same as above.
Please let me know about your experience if you put these kits together and hand them out!