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Thanks for Giving: Helpful Hints to Do Good without Making a Mess

While Thanksgiving celebrations are commonly associated with food, family and football, many also take the opportunity to give thanks by giving help. Holiday revelers dish out a plate of leftovers for a panhandler, or drop off coats on the street for homeless neighbors.

What well-intentioned givers may not know is that these gestures of gratitude sometimes create health, safety and litter problems. Issues arise not only for the homeless themselves, but for parks and neighborhoods as well.

“Community assistance is absolutely critical when it comes to addressing the issue of homelessness,” said Otis Thornton, homelessness program director for the City of Fort Worth. “What many kindhearted donors simply don’t realize is that passing out food and clothing on the streets creates problems you might not see when you drive away.”

Organizers of Directions Home, a 10-year plan to end local homelessness, emphasize that community contributions achieve the greatest benefit when funneled through existing infrastructure. The group offers a few alternatives for helping neighbors while avoiding potential pitfalls.

Provide Food

Texans have big hearts – and big appetites. So it is not surprising that many people want to serve food to homeless neighbors. Sometimes donors simply park curbside and serve directly from a vehicle. Street-feeding results in littered roadways or garbage that gets carried to other public spaces, which can lead to rodent issues. It also carries potential health concerns.

“People share left-overs with good intentions, but it is both unsafe and undignified for those being served,” said Thornton. “Traffic laws and food service guidelines are in place to keep both people who are in need and would-be good Samaritans safe.”

Moreover, food is not necessarily the greatest area of need. Homeless shelters in Tarrant County do an excellent job of providing adequate meals for the homeless population daily, so street distribution may actually waste food.

Consider volunteering for a food bank, a food pantry or Meals on Wheels instead. For those who still want to provide food, Directions Home organizers encourage doing it in partnership with an existing, licensed facility. Feed by Grace operates a venue known as Unity Park where food is dished out every Saturday in a safe and dignified environment.

Share Warmth

When temperatures drop dramatically, some locals stop in the Near East Side neighborhood with garbage bags full of warm clothes, coats and blankets, but drop them curbside and leave out of concern for personal safety. Just as street corner distribution of food has unintended consequences, so does unmanaged dispersal of these items.

“Think about the stampedes that occur in retail stores on Black Friday when consumers want to snag the best door-buster deals,” said Thornton. “A similar phenomenon can ensue when warm clothing and blankets get dropped on the streets. Unsheltered citizens scramble to get something before everything is gone. Conflicts can arise as people try to find clothing that fits, and refuse gets left behind.”

Several local agencies welcome the donation of clothing, coats and blankets. The Salvation Army Mabee Center, Presbyterian Night Shelter, the Day Resource Center, Union Gospel Mission and First Street Methodist Mission all have formalized distribution programs in place so unsheltered citizens can find items that fit.

In addition to adult outerwear, children’s sizes are also needed. The homeless population in Tarrant County includes 739 kids under the age of 18 – some of them infants. Often the greatest need is for items in sizes infant through 5, as well as size large and above for adults.

Connect to Services

Highway exits, intersections and sidewalks present another opportunity to give. But not in the way that motorists might expect. When residents encounter panhandlers requesting money or a meal, remember that food and shelter are available in Tarrant County for free.

“We recommend that people not give money to panhandlers, but instead connect them to services that help them overcome food insecurity or homelessness,” said Thornton. “It’s also not a good idea to distribute food to panhandlers, since it leads to littered roadways.”

Help in a meaningful way without giving cash to panhandlers by instead providing information on who to call for help. Directions Home offers resources that motorists can distribute to panhandlers in the form of paracord bracelets and “pocket pals”.

The red bracelets, featuring a dog tag imprinted with phone numbers for service-providing agencies, are available at Fort Worth Running Company for a donation of just $5. Donors wear them to raise awareness about homelessness until they encounter a panhandler, when the bracelet is passed along so that individual knows where to turn for comprehensive assistance.

As an added bonus, the bracelets are manufactured by homeless veterans. Donors support job creation with each bracelet purchased. Motorists wanting to give an extra helping hand can even distribute the bracelets with bus passes so the panhandler can reach a service-providing agency.

Pocket Pals are small resource guides that can be printed as needed to share with people looking for information on shelter, food, employment, and other social services.  They are available for download to carry in a wallet, purse, or glove-box at www.DirectionsHome.org.

Contribute Cash

Giving cash on street corners isn’t recommended, but providing financial support to homelessness-ending agencies will have substantial impact. Just make sure those dollars count, rather than funding duplicate services.

“The Directions Home plan is implemented by numerous partner agencies,” said Thornton. “Working in concert under one umbrella, these organizations help the community get the biggest bang for the donors’ buck.”

Donors can select agencies that match their own philanthropic agenda. For example, the YWCA offers programs specifically targeted to ending homelessness among women and children. The Samaritan House assists those living with HIV/AIDS and other special needs, while Veteran’s Industries supports the men and women who have served time in the military.  Contributions to support the implementation of the Directions Home plan can also be made online at: www.DirectionsHome.org.

Give Thanks Year-Round

Thoughts of giving to the community peak during the holidays and tend to taper off. Less support means less momentum toward moving individuals into permanent supportive housing – which costs the community real, hard dollars.

“It actually costs less to end homelessness than to manage it,” said Thornton. “As a community, we spend 36 percent more on emergency responsive services than on providing people a place to call home and the services they need to live more independently.”

Opportunities to help exist year-round, and there are lots of ways to play a role. Prepare an apartment for a new tenant and assist them on moving day. Donate professional services such as legal counsel. Participate in the Directions Home initiative known as Clean for a Cause, in which residents organize a garage sale and donate the proceeds to a homelessness-ending agency. Or join Team Home Run and lace-up to raise awareness about homelessness at local charity fun runs.

“We don’t want to discourage Fort Worth residents from getting involved – in fact, exactly the opposite,” said Thornton. “Our goal is to direct folks to opportunities where they can give, so that their good intentions result in the most benefit.”

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