How - and Why - To Make Gift Bags for the Homeless
I admit I was quite hurried when I saw you sitting on a bench in front of the downtown library, holding a crushed, bent-open book in both your hands while you read aloud to yourself. As I slowly pulled my car to the curb in front of you, I could see you were trembling.
I don’t know if you’re actually homeless, but I approached you selfishly, wanting to get rid of more of the "homeless care packages" in my car by giving you more than one, so I wouldn't have to stop so many times. I rolled down the passenger's side window and asked timidly, "Excuse me, do you need some food?" You answered, "Yes," and hurried over to the curb. I handed you a bag and asked if you had anyone else to whom you wanted to give a second bag. You shook your head and answered very definitively, "No."
When I asked your name, you told me it was Ramona. I probably wouldn't have thought to ask you that simple, seemingly obvious question if it hadn't been for my friend Kyle who has much more experience than I in this area, and she told me it was a good thing to do. She said you probably don't get asked your name very often.
I don’t presume to know what it’s like to be moving from shelter to shelter and spending entire days on park benches, but I want you to know that the thought of this happening to people in my own city makes me want to cry. My hope is that something in that bag encouraged you, made you smile, and for even a moment, made you feel loved.
When I passed by the downtown library again a few days ago, you weren't there. I'm not sure if we'll meet again, but whether you know it or not, Ramona, you are made in the image of God, and your life is precious. Our lives are vastly different - that’s unfair. But through Jesus, there is hope and grace for both of us. And that is something that draws us together.
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Have you ever approached a stop light and felt that uneasy feeling creep into your stomach as you notice a person standing on the street corner, holding a sign asking for help? Did you feel simultaneously helpless, unprepared, and desperate for a way to do more?
I wrote the above letter a few years ago, when I first started taking my toddler daughter with me to distribute care packages for the homeless and needy. These missional drives around inner city Dallas were birthed out of many moments of uneasiness and conviction at stop lights where I avoided both action and eye contact. I have nothing but a debit card, hair ties, and old lip balm in my wallet...what can I possibly give? I could go grab them a meal somewhere nearby, but I’m already five minutes late to this appointment and I have a sleeping baby in the back seat. I don’t want to just pass this person by, but I don’t know what I can do. These excuses pointed to the truth that in the midst of my current stage of life, it was and is hard to stop and help someone in need on a street corner, especially when I’m unprepared. I don’t like going out of my comfort zone, and my daily life can be very disconnected from the needy.
But God didn’t give up on me with the stop light’s symbolism - sometimes we need those forced pauses in our lives to see what - and who - we’re missing. I had heard about a friend making care packages for the homeless with her small group, and I knew it was time to take action. Next time at that stop light, I would be prepared.
After a shopping trip at our local discount store, my toddler and I sat on the dining room floor surrounded by boxes of food, stacks of napkins, ziploc bags and little Gospel of John booklets that a friend in seminary gave me. She munched on the broken, headless animal crackers while we assembled care packages as I tried to explain “homeless” to her and open her eyes to how many others around us are living. I felt the excitement building...I couldn’t wait to get out there and distribute them. I finally felt like I was equipped to do something tangible.
But when my daughter and I distributed the bags in downtown Dallas the next day, it felt...uncomfortable. I wanted to give myself a pat on the back or enjoy a swell of pride and accomplishment. But that uneasy feeling? Guess what? It didn’t go away. After much reflection, I realized the reason: it shouldn’t. The inequality and unfairness of our world is disturbing, and it should be. As if often goes, when we set out to serve others, it is we ourselves who are served. It is we who are humbled. I don’t pretend to think that a ziploc bag full of supplies will change a homeless person’s world. But the action of it changed me.
How to make the care packages:
1. Check Amazon or your local discount store to find smaller size items in bulk.
2. Keep in mind that a lot of people living on the streets have illnesses and nutrition issues - try to include healthy food items.
3. Use gallon ziploc bags as the outer bag and smaller ziploc bags to organize loose items on the inside.
4. Suggestions of items to include:
- Animal crackers or fruit snacks
- Peanut butter crackers
- Beef jerky
- Canned fruit, tuna, or other canned foods with an easy-open lid
- Spoon, fork, and napkin
- Wet wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Water bottle
- Small deodorant
- Lip balm
- Hand warmers
- $5 gift cards
- Typed or written note from your family and an encouraging Scripture
- Gospel of John or other small booklets sharing the Gospel
Important things to keep in mind:
● Ask the person if they want the care package - don’t just shove it at them. As you hand someone a bag, ask his or her name, and introduce yourself. Whether actually homeless or needy, or just a scammer dressing as one, this person is made in God’s image. Jot down the names on a post-it note in your car or store them on your phone so you can pray over them.
● Many homeless people do not stand on street corners or even “appear” homeless - they dress cleanly and have jobs. Let’s keep in mind that supporting and serving at our local shelters and food pantries are further steps to tangibly helping in our communities.
If you haven’t done this before, the Christmas season is a great time to start. For my family, we are still going to make homeless care packages and always have them in our car. But as my two daughters are a little bigger now, we’re also going to invest time outside of our cars, looking into the eyes of those suffering around us, so we can spend more than a few seconds with them at a stop light.
Ramona, if you’re still out there, I want to thank you for making an impression on me. I hope your hands and feet are warm tonight, that your belly is full, and your face is still buried in a wonderful book.