Helping the homeless by hand

Recently on a Downtown street, I met a cheerful woman with a big smile and contagious laugh — which was impressive considering she was bound to a wheelchair because her legs were amputated. She asked me for a coat to replace her ragged and dirty jacket, got herself a scarf and yes … asked for some warm socks. She put them on the ends of her legs, which she called her “nubs.”

“These will be just fine,” she said and smiled.

That heart warming, life altering experience came courtesy of a long time friend of mine. You see, he’s homeless.

After losing contact with my friend, I’ll call him Bill, I recently tracked him down. He was either crashing at a friend’s apartment or living on the street. He opened up about his life on the streets and benches of Downtown and Uptown Minneapolis and of staying in shelters at night … and shuffling from hallways to skyways in the day.

I was inspired to do something to help Bill and his homeless companions. I told him of my idea of the two of us passing out blankets. He said the homeless don’t need blankets. They need hats, gloves and clean socks, thereby exposing my lack of street sense. He also knew the hangouts. Bill was eager, and I could make this happen being blessed with an insider to society’s outsiders.

After getting the blessings from Pastor Mariann Budde at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Linden Hills  (I knew that would be a slam dunk) I expressed my intentions to the congregation and the response was remarkable. Again, no surprise from our generous and compassionate congregation.

Not really knowing what to expect and with some trepidation, I parked the minivan across the street from the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, 1010 Currie Ave. It was 6 a.m. on a Monday morning, 12 degrees and dark. The daily exodus from shelter to street had already begun. I unloaded bags and boxes full of hats, gloves, scarves, jackets, socks, sweatshirts and paperbacks while Bill got the attention of the “customers.” Immediately, we were swamped, trying to help them find what they need. “Do you have any gloves?” some asked. “I’m ringing a bell today, I need a scarf.” “Where are the hats?,” “Do you have large sizes?”

But what we heard most was: “Thank for doing this.” Also, “Bless you,” “this will be perfect,” “will you be back next week?”

Everyone was grateful, gracious and civil. They helped each other find items and went across the street to spread the word. Several were impressed by some of the authors of the paperbacks. One gentleman suggested we get some coffee from the shelter.

The people we saw were young and old. Some were healthy, some were not. They were black, white, Native American, Hispanic … mostly male. All of them cold. One young man had only a shirt to wear. Nearly everything was gone in less than an hour. We felt bad we couldn’t satisfy everyone but that also affirmed our purpose.

We were warned by someone we would be overwhelmed by a demanding throng. Well, we were overwhelmed … emotionally. I took with me the smiles and laughter, as well as the looks of joy and desperation.

Afterward, Bill’s face was beaming. He said to me, “That was unbelievable.” I was happy to help him, but I got just as much if not more out of the experience. That would not have happened without my friend.  

We both knew we needed to do this again soon. So, with another plea to my church, my son’s 3rd grade class at Lake Harriett and my Facebook friends, even more donations were collected. The van was stuffed. The next week we were back outside the Harbor Lights and a crowd was beginning to form while I was laying tarp on the ground. It was a frenzy as men and women dug through bags of coats and boxes of hats, gloves and scarves to find what they needed to help keep them warm. Bill and I kept busy helping folks find the right item. Again, everyone was courteous and we were able to satisfy most and even surprise a few. A gentle giant couldn’t find what he wanted, but he left with boots and a coat for his daughter … and a smile. We saw several familiar faces, met some new people and shared a few stories and laughs. The pot of coffee I brewed was a big hit as well.

We hauled the meager leftovers and the generous donations of children’s clothes and toiletries from my son’s class to the loading dock at Sharing and Caring Hands at 525 N. 7th St. We were exhausted and again, felt a sense of accomplishment but we both know it’s just a drop in the bucket.   

Bill, who I call my “consultant,” and I are already gearing up and stocking for another direct distribution in January after the holiday giving spirit subsides and the cold weather does not. Both of us are learning more about homelessness, from two different perspectives. And I’m learning more about  my friend and myself. 

Scott Maida is a freelance writer and video producer living in Southwest. Reach him at [email protected]

To donate

Salvation Army HOPE Harbor
53 Glenwood Ave.
Minneapolis, MN  55403

St. Stephen’s Human Services
2211 Clinton Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55404

St. John’s Episcopal Church

4201 Sheridan Ave. South
Minneapolis, MN 55410