Homeless in Vancouver: Anatomy of one holiday homeless care package

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      Tuesday, (December 19) I was sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant, focused on my laptop and the blog post I was writing, when a finger tap on my shoulder brought me back to the real world.

      The finger belonged to a well-groomed young man with a confident smile, who didn’t waste time on introductions. He straightaway handed me a hefty little white plastic bag, which he said was from both himself and his girlfriend and then he left the restaurant. He may have clapped me on the back as he left but I’m not positive.

      The bag contained a “homeless care package”, namely a large, resealable zipper-lock storage bag filled with the following toiletries and stuff:

      • 20-pack of wet wipes.
      • 130 ml tube of toothpaste.
      • 2-pack of toothbrushes.
      • 4-pack of triple-bladed disposable razors.
      • 74 ml tube of shaving cream.
      • 100 ml tube of skin care lotion.
      • 85 g stick of roll-on deodorant.
      • 140 g bar of Castile soap.
      • 15 or 20 individually packaged bandages in a smaller zipper bag
      • 2 pairs of new socks.
      • Restaurant chain gift card (marked as loaded with $10).
      • Loose change ($3.25).

      This is all good stuff and as a homeless person I am grateful to have received it. If I had a quibble it would be to argue for liquid soap to replace both the bar soap (which is awkward to store after it gets wet) and shaving cream (which is messy and useless and maybe even harmful) and easily replaced by liquid soap.

      For people looking to produce their own care package for homeless people, I will say that everything in the package I received on Tuesday has universal utility to homeless people of all genders and includes five of what I deem to be the most useful items: razors, socks, a deodorant stick, a zipper-lock bag, and a restaurant chain gift card.

      Most homeless people need at least some stuff all of the time

      Back in 2013, I began compiling a list of care package items, based on input from my homeless peers:

      • socks
      • underwear
      • disposable razors
      • deodorant stick
      • disposable rain poncho
      • Medium, or Large T-shirt
      • Chocolate bar
      • Nail clippers
      • mini Flashlight with batteries
      • Disposable lighter
      • Zipper-lock plastic bag
      • McDonald’s (or other restaurant chain) gift card
      • Full McDonald’s McCafe sticker cards
      • Something called “Weed”
      • Rolling papers (Zig Zag white)

      With the exception of the first four items, my list is not strictly ranked in order of most-to-least necessary because necessity is so subjective and homeless people (being people first and homeless second) all have individual needs.

      Money aside, sharp razors, clean socks, and clean underwear are three big things that I would think no homeless person of any gender wants to be without, while homeless women must specifically place a priority on getting menstrual pads.

      However, at least one of my homeless peers could care less about razor blades and insists that a large blanket should be included in any care package. This fellow keeps a bushy, Ulysses S. Grant-type beard but tends to lose his blankets. I, on the other hand, like to be clean-shaven and I use a sleeping bag (more efficient by volume).

      I haven’t included either sleeping bags or blankets on my list because both are too bulky—we’re talking care packages, not care suitcases.

      On the other hand, every homeless person I know (or have known) craves a source of music. But I have not included any kind of radio on my list for two reasons. First, many homeless people have a mobile phone and many low-end Android phones (never iPhones though) include an FM tuner. And secondly, there is the cost. The cheapest listed analog AM/FM radios in Vancouver are rarely less than $10 plus tax ($7.29$9.99 and $9.99) and the retail prices do not get much lower online.

      AM/FM radios can be had wholesale for about USD$2 each in minimum lots of 500, so they might be cost-effective for a program preparing a minimum of 500 homeless care packages.

      At the risk of being presumptuous, I would suggest that anyone interested in making up a gift of useful things for a homeless person first do the obvious thing and mentally put themselves in the shoes of a homeless person and imagine what things they would find useful if they were living on the street.

      A home away from homelessness

      Two fully stickered McCafe loyalty cards—good for four hot coffees and hours and hours inside a warm dry place with TV, Internet, electricity and bathrooms!

      I also encourage people to read my original 2013 post: “Ho-ho-homeless care packages or gift cards?“.

      In that post I make the case for a McDonald’s gift card being the ultimate homeless care package.

      The executive summary is that the gift card (of whatever value a person chooses to load it with) provides a homeless person with so much bang for the donor’s buck.

      The recipient of a McDonald’s gift card receives food, warmth, shelter and bathroom privileges—not to mention access to television, newspapers, the Internet, and electricity—all in a companionable social environment and with fewer restrictions than one finds in a library or in a community centre.

      For that matter, a full McDonald’s McCafe sticker card gives a homeless person similar benefits but without the food.

      But don’t worry, unless your idea of giving to homeless people involves giving them a hard time then you really cannot go wrong no matter what you choose to gift a homeless individual with.

      A McDonald’s coffee card, a chocolate bar, a scratch-and-win lottery ticket, a hand-inscribed Christmas card containing a scratch-and-win lottery ticket—it really is the thought that counts.

      Your smallest heartfelt gesture can mean quite a lot to someone who may feel marginalized and left out of all the holiday cheer.

      And if nothing else, you can always give the homeless people that you encounter a look, a warm smile and perhaps a holiday greeting—these are things that we are all happy to receive!

      Update: I made a good deal on the Castile soap. I traded it for a piece of cold pizza! 

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.

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