The whirlwind of politics has consumed the Washington, D.C. area lately, so much so that another torrent has gotten little attention: the plight of the homeless.
A combination of cold weather, a surge in homelessness, and some reductions in volunteerism because of the pandemic, have created a new set of problems for shelters and related organizations in the Washington area. Many such organizations have worked overtime to make sure the same services are provided, but it has been a struggle.
Gifts for the Homeless, an all-volunteer non-profit organization, has provided new and used clothing to more than 70 shelters and other homeless services providers since 1986. Last year GFTH distributed new clothing with a retail value of more than $1 million, as well as more than 3,000 bags of donated used clothing, blankets, sheets and towels, all sorted by our volunteers into categories meeting the needs of each organization. GFTH is in frequent touch with the tireless individuals who work with the homeless.
To shed some light on how the organizations are coping with and preparing for winter 2020, we touched base with some of the providers GFTH works with. Here are their concerns, in their own words, lightly edited for clarity:
Anne Ourand, program manager, SOME (So Others Might Eat):
“Pre-COVID, different groups were assigned to a meal, and they were PAM groups. That stands for Provide A Meal. So different groups would adopt a meal to cook on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, we had to put a stop to all those groups coming in. Our food budget has gone way up, because we don’t have their food rolling in. For the first two to three months of COVID, we were answering a lot of phone calls from restaurants, hotels. We were getting a lot of food from there. Now those have kind of dried up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our phones started ringing again. On average, there’s about 300 meals going out in the morning.
“We get donations from great groups like yours, and you’re particularly a favorite donor, because you actually donate new stuff, which is a real treat. To get a new sweatshirt or a new pair of socks really makes them feel like somebody cares. And it really makes them feel good. We really don’t have the money to buy anything, so these donations save the clothing room all year long.
“We have a massive concern this winter. We are serving food in our parking lot right now. No one is coming inside. So when the cold weather hits, it’s going to be very challenging dealing with those lines. We haven’t really come to grips with having a system. If you’ve set up tents and you make it cozy, then they’re going to want to linger. The whole point is to grab and go. It’s a rough life for these people because they have nowhere to go, but we have nowhere to house them here.”
Ron Stanley, vice president, Central Union Mission:
“The pandemic affected us in the sense that it made us more vigilant to protect the men from the COVID virus. We have not had one case of COVID take place here. The pandemic has put a dent in our volunteerism. Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are the biggest times for volunteer participation. But because of COVID, it has diminished. Now there are no volunteers coming through. The staff now is really taxed with trying to get all of those things done.
“Clothing from Gifts for the Homeless is a real blessing here. I remember my first year here, when the men received clothes from you all and it was just like Christmas. These guys don’t have long underwear, and they love jeans. We don’t get lots of donations of jeans. They love shirts and socks especially. You’d be amazed at the things they really like that we take for granted.
“I think it is going to be a particularly cold and brutal winter, and we are going to experience more people being on the street. Some of the places where a lot of the homeless used to stay, either they’re under construction or they’re just not available. Lots of businesses have closed down, particularly restaurants. When that business closes down, they lose all of their money, and they find themselves homeless. That’s why I expect that this winter will be a challenge.”
Annette Reilly, manager, Ronda Gilliam Clothing Bank:
“Our mission is to give away at no cost, clothing, shoes and bedding. There are normally a number of church rummage sales and children’s clothes sales. But those were all canceled this year. The pandemic has really curtailed our supply of children’s clothes. We closed down for 10 weeks in March to June. We were reluctant to ask on-site volunteers because it’s a personal decision whether to put on a mask and come in and help sort and hang donations. Some people are just not ready to do that kind of hands-on.
“During the summer a lot of people, while they were home, decided to do some tidying and decluttering. For a while, we were getting more donations than customers. People were afraid to come out. But right now, with your donations, we’re okay for the time being. We hope to make it through the winter. We’re so grateful for the new clothing that you’re able to provide. It’s good quality and we appreciate the chance to help more people than we could with donations of used clothing. I think demand now is as high as it’s ever been.”
Elizabeth Kiker, development director, House of Ruth:
“It is difficult. I think everybody who works in direct services is struggling. There is a huge need that feels like it’s increasing, and we’ve never stopped taking in clients. We are taking in new clients as soon as there’s a space open at all of our programs, but we are spending a lot of money on PPE, on cleaning, on making sure that we have plexiglass up between staff and clients.
“We don’t provide food at any of our programs, except one that’s a little bit more like a dorm where there are 50 women. And we have been so pleased. That used to be an in-person volunteer program, where people brought meals and then served them. We transitioned it to dropping off a meal for 20 to 25 people. It has been such a huge increase. People are really supporting House of Ruth and the women here.
“We are always so grateful for the work that you do and the organization that you represent because without those long johns and those coats, the coats for children, the coats for women, the socks, the gloves, the hats, the underwear, that’s still a huge need. When we say ‘We’re getting the socks and underwear and the long johns in,’ people were just very happy. It’s something that we look forward to all year.”
Tony Mauro, a journalist in Washington for more than 40 years, is a board member and secretary of Gifts for the Homeless, Inc. Donations to the organization are welcomed here.