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Holiday Spirit—10 Tips + Gift for the Haves Wanting to Help the Have-Nots!

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It doesn’t take much for me, a certified shopping detester, to bolt for the exit doors. Just a little piped-in holiday music will do the trick. My Scrooge-ish nature was honed over 15 years of running a shelter, dealing with the haves and have-nots and the haves wanting to load up the have-nots at Christmas time.

Reality check for the holiday-inspired do-gooders: Homelessness is year-round. Yes, kids in homeless situations enjoy being part of “the action” at this time of year, but often it gets distorted. Storing and lugging lots of stuffed animals is impossible, and heartbreaking when they have to leave Teddy behind when the dark cloud of homelessness dumps on their heads. Even keeping track of the dolls and soldier toys can be vexing.

Shelter staff really gets tested at this time of year. I can remember our doorbell ringing late one Christmas Eve with an obviously “enchanted” do-gooder dropping off a huge stack of Barbie doll presents. My disdain of Barbie aside, we had no place to put this pile of plastic perfection. We were overflowing with families and adults.

My holiday aversion always has exceptions. One Christmas Eve, during the very voluntary ecumenical, low-key “religious” service we held, one little girl asked to say something. She thanked the staff and volunteers, then said, “This was the best Christmas she ever had.” My exhausted self couldn’t hold back the tears.

Here are my 10 tips during these holidays:

  • Figure out a non-crazy time of year to help at a shelter soup kitchen or food pantry. Make up a holiday and make it a fun time for all.
  • Ask the shelter director or other in-charge person what’s needed (I’d suspect the list would include diapers, socks, and underwear). I can guarantee that a generous check would be more than appreciated! As would my nonprofit organization, HEAR US Inc.
  • Share this sweet 4-min video I made of a homeless family inviting Ellen DeGeneres to visit them in Donna, TX.
  • Purge your closets for GENTLY-USED coats and boots. Adults and kids will be happy for hats and gloves, too. 
  • Donate practical items. In areas where “camping” is the only “solution” to homelessness, sleeping bags, small tents, space blankets, and flashlights can be really useful, even life saving. Check with your area’s homelessness outreach workers.
  • Work with an agency that helps families in motels. If you can afford it, pay for a family’s room for a week.
  • Be aware that those who have lost their home, for whatever reason, typically have a hard time coping with the holiday “cheer” bandied about. Sitting and listening to someone might be the best gift of all, for both of you.
  • Show up if you have volunteered to serve. And it’s probably best if you don’t stumble in under, ahem, the influence.
  • Remember that the low-paid retail clerks, fast food workers and restaurant staff struggle year-round to make ends meet. Extra generous tips accompanied by smiles and kind words will go a long way.
  • Exercise democracy. If you’re (appropriately) appalled by skyrocketing homelessness, hunger and poverty, call your Congresspersons. Let them know you’re an appalled voter. And that you see hunger, homelessness and poverty firsthand in their district.

Since our country is bound and determined to make things worse for those already struggling to survive, you might want to understand this issue more. My gift to you, my 1-page list (PDF) of causes of homelessness from my book , Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness. Don’t say I never gave you anything!