Let’s see if this is familiar: You’re driving down the highway, observing the speed limit (close enough…), never tailgating (I obviously think highly of my readers), and listening to some great music. You see your exit approaching, slow down, and merge into the exit lane. As you glide down the ramp, you see him. Standing there at the intersection by the highway overpass. He’s ragged looking. Unshaven. Needs a haircut and some clean laundry. He’s holding a sign that says, “Will Work for Food” or “Homeless Veteran – Anything Helps.” Instantly your mind races. Thoughts whip back and forth from judgment to compassion and back in under a second. You know they want money, but you don’t know what they’ll do with it, and you don’t want to enable someone’s drug or alcohol problem. Maybe your mind flashes to the scene in Trading Places where the police catch Eddie Murphy’s character conning people by begging for donations while pretending to be a disabled veteran. Coming face to face with someone begging is a helpless, conflicted feeling. I have often wished there was something helpful I could offer them.
I think I have a solution. Like most solutions these days, I found it on Pinterest. They’re called “blessing bags” or “homeless bags.” Basically it’s a large Ziploc bag filled with toiletries and healthy snacks that you keep in your car and hand out in those situations when you want to do something. Some months after I saw this on Pinterest, I was talking to my friend, Cathy, about it, and she told me about her experience doing this just last year. So I used Cathy’s insights and experience as well as the Pinterest ideas to put together three of these bags.
First of all, J was totally not into it. “Mom, why are we doing this?” “Mom, are you going to make us go out looking for homeless people to give them to?” “Can I go play video games now?” It sounds like my son is totally self-absorbed. He’s fourteen, so that’s pretty much accurate, although he has his moments… But Cathy had warned me that creating the bags hadn’t kept her much younger son’s attention either. “(My son) did help me put them together, and I told him they were for people who don’t have homes. He didn’t really seem interested or try to make sense of it until he went with (his dad) to hand them out. I supposed their reaction was a memorable experience for him.” This led to a series of good discussions with her son about homelessness, and he was only three at the time! It’s never too early to make kids aware of the needs of others.
What to put in the bags: First of all, remember that you are going to be keeping these bags in your car, so avoid things that will melt or freeze. Be mindful of the nutritional value of snacks, as well. If a person has gone without food for a while, they don’t need junk, they need real nutrients. So here are some of the items I put in my bag, ideas from Cathy, and suggestions from Pinterest:
- Sunscreen (I had skin cancer, so this was top of my list!)
- Hand sanitizer
- Antibacterial wipes
- Pre-packaged healthy snacks like granola or granola bars, crackers, dry fruit/raisins, trail mix, nuts, jerkey, mints, etc.
- Gift card to Subway or another healthy and alcohol-free restaurant
- List of local resources, shelters, food banks, etc.
- A small book or bible
I always snag the little travel sized products when I’m staying in hotels, so I had a stash from which I picked my shampoo, soap, and lotion. I also had some travel size toothpaste and unopened toothbrushes from the dentist, and an assortment of prepackaged snacks. So I gathered all of that together and divided out three of each item I wanted to include in my bags. Then at lunch last week I grabbed some $5 Subway cards along with my sandwich. Currently my bags each contain a travel soap, a travel bottle of shampoo, a travel lotion, a $5 gift card to Subway, and some healthy snacks. I should point out that I put the toiletries into a smaller zipper bag inside the big one, because I didn’t want the scents form the hygiene products to affect the flavor of the snacks.
Still on my shopping list are antibacterial wipes, one more mini sunscreen (I had two), three washcloths, purse packs of Kleenex, 3 gender neutral deodorants (or one woman’s deodorant as I have two men’s travel deodorants in my stash).
Altogether, I think it will cost me about $30 out of pocket to put together these three bags, and the Subway cards are the single biggest expense. The cost will vary depending on what unopened stuff you already have on hand and what you choose to include.
Thoughts on delivery: The idea behind these blessing bags is that you would open your car window and hand them out to homeless people begging at intersections. In theory, that is. Cathy found that sometimes she would be in the wrong lane, or the light would change and it made it hard to pass them out that way. She tried pitching the bag out her window, but felt that was undignified and came with the risk of the bag being mistaken for trash or not getting to its intended target. After that she took to parking her car and walking to hand deliver the bags.
However you make your deliveries, be safe. While many homeless people are just down on their luck, others are mentally ill or addicts. Don’t put yourself or your kids in a dangerous situation by going out in the dark. Choose well-lit public places. If you’re worried that you can’t safely deliver the bags yourself, take them to a shelter where they can be handed out by the staff.
Comments? Questions? Additional suggestions? – Leave a comment!