“It took a lot for me to swallow my pride and be able to stop and say, ‘Hey, I gotta ask for help.’”
Stephen James was standing in the rain on Nicollet Mall, holding a sign that read, “Everybody needs some kindness. Please help.” James’ guitar stood next to him, its strings broken from the long hours he has spent performing songs for money.
James is one of many people in Minneapolis and St. Paul who find themselves in a place where they have to ask for money on the street. These people, in addition to facing hunger and lack of shelter, can often feel isolated, as they are often ignored or treated rudely by passers by.
That is why Small Sums and the Dignity Center, two local organizations that serve the homeless and the working poor, have teamed up to promote compassion towards those in need through the Roadside Kindness Packets Project. Individuals and community organizations give a free-will donation to acquire bags of lip balm, hand sanitizer, granola bars and other supplies assembled by volunteers, which they can give to homeless people and panhandlers they pass on the street.
The bags also contain information on local resources that could be beneficial to the homeless, including a list of food shelves that do not require proof of a permanent address. John Cole, director of distribution at the Dignity Center, said that the decision about which supplies and resources to include was based on many years of distributing items to the homeless.
“We arrived at what are the more popular things that are needed for someone who actually lives with all their belongings on their back,” Cole said.
Small Sums provides homeless people who have just found a job with dress shirts, shoes and anything else they might need for their work. They recently started a Kickstarter campaign called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” to raise money for work shoes and work boots.
The Dignity Center provides advisory services to homeless people in a variety of areas, including healthcare, legal issues and housing. Terre Thomas, co-director of Small Sums, said the project started in October 2014 out of a common interest between Small Sums and the Dignity Center to facilitate ties between those who are homeless and the community.
“One of the things that is important for both of our organizations is understanding the importance of seeing people for the human beings that they are,” Thomas said.
Cole said the program is currently seeking to expand its influence by collecting more donations and collaborating with community organizations in different parts of the city. The Random Kindness Packets Project currently collaborates with organizations throughout St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as those in a few suburban areas.
To help with the process of giving, each bundle of care packets includes a list of tips for how to go about approaching someone on the street, such as ideas on how to start a conversation and what to avoid saying that might be rude or offensive. Thomas hopes this will help make encounters less daunting and awkward.
Thomas also noted that this program provides an alternative for those who do want to help, but would prefer not to give cash.
“I hear an awful lot of people say that ‘I’m worried that the money is going to be spent on drugs or alcohol,’ or something that they don’t want their money spent on,” she said.
In her experience, people have been equally grateful for food and supplies as they have for cash donations.
“I have given non-cash gifts to people for years and never once ever, in the hundreds of times that I have done it has anyone ever fussed at me that, ‘I don’t want this, I just want money.’ […] I’ve never had an experience where someone wasn’t thankful,” Thomas explained.
This project comes at a time when homelessness is a growing problem in many urban areas, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Wilder Foundation reported over the thousand people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota in 2012, up from fewer than 8,000 in 2006. There was also a shift in the population to include more women and young people.
In 2006, Hennepin County started “Heading Home Hennepin,” its 10-year plan to end homelessness, a project that declared all homeless would have “safe, decent, and affordable housing” by 2016. This program was intended to ensure housing for anyone who would otherwise be sleeping on the street or in a shelter.
However, according to its most recent report, released in July of last year, the program has hit some snafus over the course of its mission, including lack of funding and issues caused by the 2008 recession. Thus, it has fallen short of the amount of housing it hoped to offer families by over 700 units and has only really succeeded in decreasing “chronic homelessness,” while family homelessness has actually increased. It has been called into question by a number of critics whether the program will succeed in its mission of eradicating all types of homelessness from Hennepin County.
Homelessness remains a problem in the Twin Cities, and Thomas noted that the need for services is still very great. In the short-term, though, this grassroots project may help break down the barriers of isolation that panhandlers often face.
James seemed to like the idea of the project, and was not put off by the idea of gifts instead of cash.
“I think it’s a good thing. Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to be able look nice and take care of myself,” he said.
“People look down on he because I’m out here, when really I’m just a guy the same as everybody else,” he said. “I just need a little help.”
To get involved with the Roadside Kindness Packets Project, contact Small Sums at [email protected] or 651-242-9441 or the Dignity Center at [email protected] or 612-435-1315. Bags can be obtained at either location during their office hours.
An example of a Roadside Kindness Packet filled with lip balm, hand sanitizer, granola bars and other essentials. Submitted image
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified both Small Sums and the Dignity Center as religious organizations. Small Sums is not religiously affiliated.