Seeing the down and out on affluent Southern California streets is especially haunting at this time of year, when contrasts between the haves and have-nots just can't be comfortably ignored. Holiday giving to those less fortunate is an American tradition, and, although almost all of us want to help, many of us are unsure about how to give effectively.
Jill Halverson, director of the Downtown Women's Center on Skid Row, (213) 680-0600, says you can do the maximum good by working with existing facilities and agencies.
"Contact one of the places in your neighborhood that works with poor and hungry and homeless people, places like the local Y, or your own church or synagogue. Another wonderful resource is the Los Angeles County Information Line ((213) 686-0950; multilingual). It's a 24-hour (information and referral) line that has the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all the services, and their list is always kept current.
"Also, people can call the City Department of Social Services ((213) 485-5003), which oversees the fund raising for all the charitable groups in the city of Los Angeles."
Halverson explains that haphazard giving without using an agency can sometimes do more harm than good. "Well-meaning people come downtown and pass out money on the street every Christmas, and as a result someone is always hurt. It's so demeaning to have a whole group of poor people fighting over money, money that isn't always used appropriately, incidentally. It would be far better to ask an agency for some guidance on how to distribute cash."
There are also several groups that come to Skid Row to serve meals in parking lots, tending to set up their giveaways at the same time that food is being served locally. The result is that perishable food is wasted, which is certainly not in the best interest of the hungry, she says.
Others come down and dump clothing on street corners, a common occurrence that brings chaos to the street and havoc to all those who work there.
"People fight over the clothes and then wind up throwing half of them away. The best thing is to take that clothing to an agency where it will be distributed in a much more dignified and respectful way for everyone concerned," Halverson suggests. "Whatever you want to give will be maximized by going through the proper channels."
A Sense of Dignity
Protecting the dignity of the poor is a sore issue with those who work closely with them. Some clothing donated is so stained that it's more insult than gesture of good will. Dirty clothes, broken toys and spoiled foods are constantly being "donated," and bring more grief than anything else to people whose spirit is already injured.
Halverson says: "I think if we can ask people to think about what they would like to receive and how they would like to receive it, if they were in that other person's shoes, it could be an enormous help this year.
"When people call to ask what we need at the center, I always try to suggest a broad spectrum of things ranging from those that cost nothing to those that cost something, depending on their financial ability."
Prized items are often those that are the most practical. Halverson points out that blankets are always very useful, and it is nice to know that your gift is keeping somebody warm when the nights get cold.
Warm socks and underwear are also at the top of the always-needed list. Clean underwear is the first thing people want after they've had a chance to clean up at a shelter. Socks are particularly welcome because most of the homeless wear secondhand shoes that don't fit very well, she says, and a few pairs of socks can help to diminish blisters.
Other good choices are towels, washcloths, soap, deodorant, razors, shaving cream, first-aid supplies, combs, brushes, nail polish and makeup--given in quantities to fit your pocketbook.
"Most women have cupboards full of those free samples given out as favors or as a gift-with-purchase," Halverson says. "These little jars and bottles of cosmetics and cologne make great stocking-stuffers. They don't have to fit anybody, and they're such a treat for the recipients because they're that little something extra beyond survival."
The Gift of Time
One of the most appreciated gifts is your time, whether it's an hour or two or a full day's work. That kind of personal involvement is very rewarding, Halverson observes, and often you get back more than you give.
"We can use any kind of expertise you have to offer down here, from secretarial and office skills to the more specialized skills of lawyers and doctors," Halverson says. "Everyone is welcome. We can use help with such things as sorting and distributing donations, or preparing and serving food. And those who want to work at home can make phone calls or help with the books and correspondence. Compassion is acceptable to us on any terms."