“When in plenty you sit by a warm fireside, then it’s time to remember the poor.”
The words are old, from an obscure English folk song, but the sentiment remains strong. Holiday giving is a happy tradition for many people, but one that benefits from a little know-how.
However generous, some donations are helpful, but others are not. Five organizations serving homeless and poor people around Seattle offered up their own recommendations for what people really need for the holidays — and a few things they don’t.
The top item these nonprofits want is money. No surprise there. Service organizations know what they need and often have means to buy exactly what they need at a discount. But many people like giving something concrete, something tangible, something they know will be helpful in a specific way to a real human being.
First on the list of tangibles is socks. The concept of a “Christmas stocking” takes on a whole new meaning for people who live on the streets or in shelters. Instead of a decorative container for candy and toys, what a lot of people really want is a pair of socks. Or several. Going without socks, especially when the weather is cold and wet, can lead to all kinds of foot problems: blisters, fungus, frostbite, even blood poisoning. If your only transportation is your own two feet, they need to be in walking shape. You need clean, dry socks.
A service agency called WeCount uses cellphone technology to connect possible donors to needs in their community. Its system is set up so that people get specific donations, such as cold-weather sleeping bags, tents, working laptops or cellphones, and still one of their major services is Box of Sox, blue newspaper style boxes placed all around town. People can put socks in or take a pair if they need them.
“The Box of Sox helps everyone — men, women and children. It’s not just for people who are homeless,” said Graham Pruss, founder of WeCount. “A pair of socks can help pay a bill, so maybe people can stay in their home.”
Other organizations echoed the need, including Union Gospel Mission and Facing Homelessness, where Sara Vander Zanden said socks were “a biggie” for them in desired donations.
Fare cards for mass transit can make a huge difference, particularly for someone who doesn’t have the up-front cash needed to get a $5 orca card or a $3 Regional Reduced Fare Permit. Vander Zanden said the gift of an orca card with $10 on it would be “amazing.” A fare card can mean the difference between getting a job and not getting it, between seeing a doctor and missing an appointment.
Interview clothes are precious, for men and for women, and can make a big difference in getting that all-important job. In a recent sweep of an encampment, one man particularly mourned the loss of a set of interview clothes, according to a local news report.
Northwest Harvest, a food bank distributor, greatly appreciates baby formula, says their Chief External Relations Officer Gayle Johnson. Organizations that ask for winter clothing and tents emphasize that they really need good quality donations if they’re to protect people from the weather.
Good gifts don’t have to be the most practical. Some “sugar plum” donations might not be necessary but are in high demand and seem to bring joy to the recipients.
Soccer balls for kids are high on the list. Women at Mary’s Place are really pleased to find “nice purses,” says Linda Mitchell, their director of marketing and communications. Perfume and cologne are prized items, as are African-American baby dolls. Nice belts and wallets are appreciated for men at the Union Gospel Mission. Functioning suitcases on wheels are great for many people who have to move their belongings around all the time. Instant coffee packets are popular, too.
LUMPS OF COAL
But the other side of sugar plums are the lumps of coal, those gifts that don’t particularly help or perhaps just end up in the garbage. Service agencies were a little reluctant to talk about those, because they didn’t want to seem ungrateful.
We asked Gayle Johnson of Northwest Harvest if her organization would rather not have people dump their holiday candy for food banks, but she answered tactfully, “We emphasize nourishing food,” and mentioned that people who use food banks often have conditions that require healthful food.
Still, some of the organizations let us know that children’s toys aren’t much use unless they’re new or very gently used. Not only is a beat-up toy unlikely to cheer a child’s heart, but many of the children in this population have compromised immune systems. Old toys could carry germs that would cause more harm than good.
Grown-up toys that aren’t working well — computers, laptops, cellphones, and so forth — are not useful or appreciated. Besides, as Torie Rynning of the Union Gospel Mission points out, the charity often has to pay to get rid of them. Lap-size throws, those small, thin blankets that may come to you courtesy of another charity, are not useful, because they don’t weather well outside.
In some instances, the “lumps of coal” are fairly obvious; formal wear, for example, is not particularly useful, though people do give it. While shower gel is a prized item, bubble bath is not much use to people who may have access to showers but are unlikely to be enjoying bathtubs.
WHERE TO GIVE
Here’s a breakdown of the organizations we talked to, what they want for Christmas — and what they don’t.
This organization emphasizes personal contact, and they have a really small space, so they keep their list of “asks” to a list of eight: socks, coats, hats, gloves, sleeping bags, tents, tarps and backpacks. Instant coffee packets are appreciated; an orca card with $10 on it would be “amazing.”
Northwest Harvest is a nonprofit food bank distributor operating statewide in Washington with a network of 375 food banks, meal programs and high-need schools. They encourage donations of money, time or organizational skill more than donations in kind, but, if you really want to give something tangible, they always need baby formula.
Union Gospel Mission
Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission provides emergency care and long-term recovery services to hurting and homeless people in the greater Seattle area. The Mission provides shelter for 175 people and serves 1,500 meals a day. Things they can use are meat and breakfast meats in 40-pound lots — the amount needed for one meal at the men’s shelter — and canned fruit and vegetables (“any size, but 10 lb. cans would be fantastic”). Good gifts for individuals include deodorant, shaving cream, razors, blankets, underwear for men and women, coats and warm outerwear for men and women. They can’t use most used toys, personal computers or printers, knick-knacks, unmatched sets of dishes, formal wear, lap throws or bubble bath.
Mary’s Place opened in 1999 as a drop-in day center for single women. In response to the increasing numbers of families experiencing homelessness, Mary’s Place currently operates six emergency night shelters for families and two day centers. The list of needs on their website is long, and includes seasonal clothing, especially for teen boys, over-the-counter medicines, professional services and hygiene needs. Feminine sanitary products are always appreciated, and, says Linda Mitchell, “We never have enough diapers!” “Sugar plum” items include nice purses, perfumes and colognes, unopened toys, new soccer balls, major league sports clothing — especially hats, new makeup, backpacks and roller suitcases, which need not be new. What don’t they want? Out of season clothing, anything damaged or dirty.
A mostly app-based service matching specific needs with donors. They are interested in laptops, cellphones and tablets, but functioning ones only, please. Tents, cold weather clothing, sleeping bags are also good. They are set to join forces in December with Offer Up, an app for buying and selling within the community, to arrange for donations, and hope those donations will include soccer balls and interview clothes.