What has brought me back to writing here today is a topic that is more personal to me than your parents showing your significant other that embarrassing picture of you as a kid wearing your underwear as a hat. Not that I have any pictures like that (she says not making eye contact).
But first, I should probably provide a little background. I have been in social work for the better part of a decade, working mostly with homeless populations and those in homeless shelters in particular. Shelters are funded partially by things like grants and endowments, but we also depend heavily on the community for support and donations to help meet the tremendous needs our populations face.
For the most part, the community support the shelters I have worked for have received is incredible. People donating time, money, and much needed supplies saves lives and helps countless individuals get off the streets and into a better place.
There is a darker side to that community dependence, however. This is that darker side:
That veritable wall of boxes is what I walked in to work this week to see: Over 300 lbs of juice... that had expired in 2014. Not only was the juice expired, but it had been left out in the Arizona sun so long that some of the bottles had melted and fused together.
Someone had dropped off a wall of, essentially, toxic waste to a shelter that serves medically fragile homeless people. Not only is that callous, but it is dangerous! I'm grateful I had a chance to check out this anonymous donation before anyone drank any!
This is a problem that a lot of people in non-profits don't want to talk about, because we truly do need donations to survive and we don't want to discourage anyone who wants to help. However, there are times when the donations that we receive, like the wall of contaminants pictured above, goes beyond being unhelpful, they become a burden on the agencies. Not only was the juice dangerous to the health of my clients, but it meant that I then had to figure out a way to dispose of it all. Essentially, I spent most of my morning, time where I could be looking for housing opportunities for my clients, hauling boxes across a massive parking lot in 111 degree heat to a dumpster.
Sadly, this isn't a one-time thing. A month ago I received a donation of 800 pounds of rice and dried beans that had expired some 13 years ago. You read that right, 13 years! Destiny's Child was still together when that food expired.
I once worked at a shelter where a box truck drove up and dropped off 16 pallets of yogurt that had gone bad to the point where it had liquefied. I can't even count the number of times someone has dropped in with a take-out box they had dug out of their fridge after a few days and decided that they didn't want it, mold included.
Homeless shelters need more support now more than ever. Funding for necessary programs has dwindled significantly in the last 5 years, and current trends are indicating that what little funding is left will be facing challenges and cuts soon. Please, we need your generosity. No, let me rephrase that, we need your mindful generosity.
Donate to non-profits, but before you drop off that thing you don't need anymore, here are some questions to ask yourself:
1. Is this appropriate for the population it is going to?
I work in a men's shelter. You would be amazed at how many bras, tampons and sanitary napkins we get donated (I also get women's thongs on a regular basis, and nothing will break your sanity faster than having to confiscate one from a client who is using it as a slingshot to shoot other clients with wads of paper). These items would be much better used at a drop-in center that serves women or a domestic violence shelter.
2. Would I eat this? Would I feed this to a loved one? Is this something that someone could conceivably wear without it falling apart?
If the answer is "no," then don't donate it. I know it is hard to believe, but homeless people are still, in fact, people. If it would give you food poisoning, then it will give them food poisoning too, and believe me, their lives are hard enough already.
The same things goes for clothes. I once opened a donated trash bag full of clothes to find that not only they were moldy, but a family of mice had moved in. The bag was inside the shelter when I opened it, so we then got to pay for exterminators to come take care of our donated mice problem.
3. Am I just making something I don't want to deal with someone else's problem?
At one homeless shelter I worked at, I once took a donation of six used hamster cages. The person who dropped it off said, "I just didn't want to be bothered with them anymore and I couldn't figure out what I should do with them. So... Here you go."
Again, I don't want to discourage anyone from donating to good causes. However, just donating any old thing and patting yourself on the back can not only be unhelpful and counterproductive, it can be downright dangerous. If you don't know what you can do to help, ask someone who works for the agency. Every non-profit has a "needs and wants" list they will happily provide you with. Shelters are always in need of things like clean socks, toiletries and donations of edible food. What we don't need is to be designated as your alternative to paying to drop your stuff off at the landfill. Please, don't just do good things for your non-profits, do better things.
As always feel free to follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter (@AllisonHawn) and Instagram (@AtillatheHawn) and my books can be found for your reading enjoyment here!