What to Give Homeless People in the Cold

homeless woman receives a warm coat

For many, the approaching of winter is a joyous occasion. Depending upon where you reside, it could mean the falling of snow, a crisp, steely sky, sweaters and scarves, and warm cider. Even in warmer parts of the world, the atmosphere still gets a subtle shift. Lower temperatures set in, and the seasonal affair is met with great anticipation.

This is not so for our homeless neighbors. For them, the drop in temperature almost always equates to a lower quality of life. Winter is a time when icy glares and frozen city streets create an unfathomably hostile environment. Unsheltered homeless people in particular (i.e., those individuals who reside on the street, in a tent, or in a vehicle) will face unspeakable horrors as the temperatures drop.

This is especially true right now, in the aftermath of the international pandemic. Many of the public spaces that once served as safe havens for people experiencing homelessness (such as libraries, coffee shops, and shopping malls) are still shuttered or open at limited capacity. At the same time, many subsets of homeless community members who are more likely to be living outside (such as war veterans) are sadly increasing in number across the nation and world.

You lived through the pandemic and understand that times are brutal. Human generosity is something we need so we can endure. You see a person in need, and you want to do more. Here’s a look at how to help.

What to Give to Those Who Have Nothing (Hint: It’s Not Just Anything)

There is a false perception that suggests that beggars have no right to be choosy. The reason this expression is amiss is multifold.

Firstly, not all homeless people beg, and not all panhandlers are homeless. Secondly, a lack of choice already exists simply by virtue of being homeless.

In other words, people experiencing homelessness have already lost their right to choose for the most part. They no longer get to decide where they will sleep, sit, or stand. They probably have very little say in what they will eat or if they will eat anything at all. If they were born into homelessness, which happens more often than we care to admit, they’ve probably never had any of those choices.

Even with all of these unfortunate circumstances, people enduring the horrors of homelessness are in no way obligated to just accept anything simply because it is free. For this reason, it might be helpful for you first to know what not to give homeless people in the cold.

Here is a brief rundown of such items:

Food (especially if you’ve already been eating from it!)

Many people offer members of the homeless community a meal because we’ve been taught that they need one. On a subliminal level, the offering of food might even be perceived as a challenge, a way of forcing the homeless person to prove their neediness. The thought process behind this usually falls along the lines of an individual convincing themselves that if this person were hungry enough, they would eat whatever was offered.

While somewhat true, this thinking needs more context. Most homeless people in the United States (with some exceptions) have access to a nearby charitable kitchen. They are likely not starving, although it is possible.

If you hand them a sandwich, they have to consider whether or not it is a kind gesture or a kind of trick. Violent crimes are often committed against homeless people, so they are justifiably cautious. Even if the food you offer them is not contaminated, it could contain allergens or excess sugars.

Soiled Clothing – assuming they will take just anything because they’re in need.

Advice

Don’t offer advice on how to get a job, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, get out of homelessness, etc. Unless you are a licensed social worker, you are not in a position to advise anyone.

Here are some recommended items that will actually have an impact:

Money

Contrary to public opinion, studies continue to show that homeless people are incredibly resourceful and savvy with money. In fact, it is one of the few items that has helped some people overcome homelessness and secure suitable housing.

Clean, New Socks

There is nothing worse than a pair of soggy socks in a blizzard. Clean, dry socks are an inexpensive way to make a real difference.

Toiletries

These are essential, especially for women who might need sanitary pads and other feminine products.

Blankets and Clean Winter Clothing, to fight the bitter cold

Backpacks or Luggage

Give items that can help to carry belongings from place to place. Anything that makes traveling with everything you own a little easier is appreciated.

First Aid Supplies

Bandaids and wound care are good items to give. Street medicine specialists claim that wounds are a huge problem for their homeless patients, especially in winter when a wound can quickly become more severe amid the freezing temperatures.

Online Support or Assistance

This can be financial or emotional. Many people experiencing homelessness have cell phones that they use to communicate and Venmo accounts to take donations. Those donations might fund things they actually need, like a new car battery instead of a half-eaten sandwich.

A Smile

A smile is free and one of the warmest and best kinds of charity around. If you have nothing else, don’t worry. A smile could be the one thing that brightens a stranger’s day.

While You’re Thinking About Giving, Remember to Give Your Legislators a Call

Positively changing a stranger’s day is always an excellent gesture. However, if we want to witness real change, we must alter public policy. The only way to do that is to contact your legislators and remind them that winter is coming and nobody deserves to endure it on the streets.


Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith

     

Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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