Backpacks for Christmas

By Don

I had been hearing for a while about some deal called the “Homeless Backpack Challenge.” Apparently the idea was to distribute backpacks to Tucson’s homeless community for Christmas. And these weren’t just to be any old plain empty backpacks. Nope, they were going to be packed full-up with essentials a homeless person might need, especially during the winter! This included things like heavy wool socks, gloves, a knit cap, sunscreen or lotion, Chapstick, snacks, and more. There would even be a $5 McDonald’s gift card in there! Three organizations were collecting backpack donations: The Tribe-Tucson, the Figueroa Foundation, and the Central City Assembly Church. The backpacks would be given out during a Christmas dinner for the homeless to be held at Central City. I had worked with both The Tribe and Central City before, so I saw no real reason not to volunteer for this one. Let me tell you, I had a blast! I met a lot of really cool people, and maybe did a little bit of good for the less fortunate in my community as well.

The day of the big event dawned sunny and . . . well, not so much. Actually, it was horrible. A cold, constant, drizzly rain with fog. There were even a few snowflakes mixed in! In Tucson! I was worried that this might cut down on the attendance, but it didn’t. Homeless people are used to living outdoors in the weather, and a little rain wasn’t going to keep them away. I arrived four hours early, as requested, thinking there was no way that there’d ever be enough to do. I was wrong – there was plenty enough to do! We had collected over 400 backpacks, and each one had to be checked and double-checked to make sure they all contained everything. We also had to work out all the logistics. Letting that many people in to rummage around until they found a backpack they liked was never going to work. That would take forever, and we only had three hours, including feeding them all dinner. We finally had volunteers set out maybe 15 different styles of backpacks at a time, and they could choose any one of those ones they liked. But only those. No special requests (that rule got bent a lot!). We’d let them in in small groups, and move them on through as quickly as possible.

In addition to the backpacks we also had a few hundred blankets, a good selection of clothes, some shoes, and a whole bunch of other stuff ranging from feminine hygiene products to first aid supplies to various other sundries. We also had 50 kid’s bags (we didn’t know how many kids to expect, since the event hadn’t been advertised as being for children). The kid’s bags included many of the same items as the adult backpacks, with the addition of a small toy or game. We had also set up a kid’s area where they could watch Christmas cartoons and meet Santa. As it turned out this was a really good idea, as it kept the kids from running around all wild-eyed and stir-crazy since they obviously couldn’t play outside in the nasty weather. For adult entertainment there was a three-piece combo which mostly played Christmas tunes, except when they ran out of those they just played jazz. They were really pretty good!

One unexpected visitor who showed up was The Sock Man! You may have heard about him. He’s a retired gentleman who travels all around the country in an RV and gives out new pairs of socks to the homeless. Most people take their shoes and socks for granted, but they are a real issue for the homeless. Not having proper, good-fitting shoes and socks can lead to some pretty serious health problems. The Sock Man had seen the event on Facebook and decided to drop by (it was just a short side-trip from Illinois, he told me with a sly grin). He’s a real character, and was a lot of fun! Plus he brought 400 pairs of new socks, in like these six huge garbage bags. Everybody who needed a pair of socks got one, and they were very popular.

We finally got everything staged and ready to go. I’m always amazed at how professionally run these all-volunteer events are. It seems like an impossible task, but everyone just pitches in where they are needed, and with a little luck it all works out. In addition to volunteers from the three organizations we also had a group of about 15 kids who had come over from San Diego. I never really did figure out who they were, other than they were a church group doing a charitable mission of some sort. They served the dinner, and I will say this – they were the most hospitable, friendly, loving group of kids I think I’ve ever seen! Working with the homeless is not for everyone, but they were perfect! They give me a little bit of hope for the future, at least. My job, as it turned out, was to take the tickets as the folks came to the dining room for dinner. That was a job I was well qualified for, as it really only entailed holding out a basket and they all dropped their tickets in there. That I could do! In all I’d say we had about 50 volunteers spread around all the stations – front desk, backpacks, clothing, dinner, kid’s area, and the rest.

We actually opened up about 20 minutes early because there were just so many people in line, waiting out in the cold rain. There were easily a few hundred homeless folks out there in the parking lot when we kicked it off. This presented a problem because the Central City dining room only holds maybe 60 people. If the weather had been better we had planned on serving on picnic tables outside – we had plenty of those. But we worked with what we had, and moved folks through in groups of about 15 at a time. It did take every bit of the three hours, but eventually everybody did get something to eat. Dinner was pulled BBQ pork, mashed potatoes, pasta salad, corn, green beans, bread, and all sorts of different kinds of tasty deserts. It was all nice and orderly and went just like clockwork – no problems at all.

All-in-all it went really well, and it was a hell of a lot of fun! It was a festive holiday atmosphere, but also controlled chaos which is pretty much what I expected. We ended up giving out almost all of the 400 backpacks, and all 50 of the kid’s bags. One thing people don’t usually think of when they think of the homeless are the kids. Most think the homeless are all the unkempt, filthy, scraggly old bums with long hair and bushy beards sitting on the street-corner begging for money. That’s actually only a very, very small fraction of the homeless population. Most of the homeless are really just pretty ordinary people, including families, single mothers, and kids.

I think we also gave out all the blankets, pretty much all the socks, and a good deal of the clothing and other items. As is typical, the homeless were very grateful for what they were given. I saw more than a few in tears after being handed a backpack full of things they could actually use, or finding that pair of shoes that they desperately needed, or even just for a pair of new, clean socks with no holes in them! I lost count of how many times I was personally thanked; hundreds of times, easily. That’s what makes it all worthwhile!

I don’t believe I really did all that much, but I was pretty much exhausted when it was all over. It was a big day! But I think we did some good. Homeless people don’t have much, and I hope we maybe helped them out at least a little with the backpacks and supplies, the good hot food, and a warm, friendly place to be off the streets for a few hours. I went home feeling pretty good, and I’m already looking forward to next year!

December 2014

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