Doc Gurley Second Annual Homeless Gift Guide

Ahh, there’s nothing more fun, or easier, than shopping for holiday gifts for the homeless (rub palms

Holiday Gocco Gift tags - Nature - set of 5
Image by Sarah Parrott via Flickr

together with glee). And believe me, this kind of statement is strong praise indeed, coming from someone with a near-lethal shopping allergy (hey, I’ve been tempted to put it in my medical record). So exactly how do you go about finding something useful, and fun? Follow along as we survey this year’s harvest of treats for life on the streets:

1) Earning power is primo. One of the best possible presents is something that helps a homeless person earn some cash. Consider buying a harmonica, recorder, or sheet music for the a cappella singer who starts to sound hoarse by the end of rush hour. If your neighborhood, like one in Berkeley, has a street person who paints tiny abstracts on rocks to earn some bucks, a set of acrylics or a handful of Sharpies could be a life-saver. Finally, anyone who’s ever had to dumpster-dive knows the value of some study work gloves, or a pair of fingerless mitts. But what if you don’t know someone’s talents? Never fear. You can still spontaneously give any homeless person a great present. Consider some of these types of gifts –

2) Hats, scarves and gloves. Any of these are heart-warming (literally) gifts, especially this time of year. Prices range anywhere from $4.99 for men’s items at Target and Longs, to all of $1 at the (of course) Dollar General Store. Homeless people try to blend, because the streets are not a good place to attract attention. For that reason, choose gender neutral colors that won’t show wear and tear so fast (navy, brown, black). And if you’re giving any clothing item, it’s nice to leave the tag in place. Lots of homeless people have gotten unfortunate cases of lice and scabies from accepting used articles, so it’s reassuring to know, if you’re the recipient, that what you’re getting is new. Coats are really nice, but hard to hand out discreetly, and expensive to buy in quantity – but if you can provide them, go for it! Another lovely present is a pair of sweatpants. Sweatpants are both gender and size neutral. Buy men’s large in dark colors, regardless of who you’re gifting ($19.99 Target and other stores).

3) Rain gear. When considering a present for your typical street person, keep in mind the requirement that everything must be carried on your person at all times. For that reason, umbrellas are not often used on the street. Umbrellas, in general, are both too heavy and flimsy. However, the ultra-useful rain poncho (Emergency Rain Poncho, $0.99 at Target) is both cheaper, and better as a gift.

4) Bags. Carrying everything you own is not easy, especially when almost all of it is packed in hand-creasing, thin white plastic bags. This year, due to the widespread interest in saving the environment through re-use, there’s a fine selection of collapsible, sturdy bags at truly affordable prices. These make great gifts for the homeless. Almost every store has a branded reusable shopping bag for around $1 (Longs, Target, Trader Joe’s) but my favorite is the Ikea large blue bag – it has a  set of wide, durable shoulder straps (key for carrying heavy items), plus a second, hand-length set of straps, is only $0.59, and it’s made of the same weather-resistant material as blue tarp, which means it can also be used as an impromptu pup-tent if necessary.

5) Outdoor supplies. You’ll find a wealth of gift ideas in any camping section of a department store. Bungie cords (five for $2.99), sturdy metal clips (three for $2.49), duct tape ($1.99 a roll), and heat-retaining foil emergency blankets ($2.99 each) are all cheap, useful and fun things to toss in a gift bag. Stay away from knives (including multi-function tools) and open-flames (like camping stoves), both of which can get the urban camper in trouble. Polartec throws are really nice gifts, and there’s a wide selection this year to choose from. It’s best, however, to avoid cotton or fluffy blankets, which turn into a soggy wad in the rain. Both Target and Longs stock Polartec throws ($4.99-$9.99), but the cheapest high-quality throw is at Ikea, in a variety of colors ($2.49-$3.99).

6) Foot care. Foot problems top the list of miseries that plague people living on the street. If you lived and walked in the same pair of shoes/socks for days on end, your feet would disintegrate too. Trench foot has actually made a resurgence in this country among street people. You may be asking yourself – if it hurts so much, why do homeless people wear the same shoes/socks all the time? Well, if you go to sleep on the street without your shoes or socks on – they’ll be gone in the morning. Foot care items make thoughtful, inexpensive, and health-preserving gifts. Sturdy athletic socks, foot lotion, and manicure sets can be combined to make a theme present for your gift recipients this year. Packs of ten pairs of athletic socks ($7.99 at Target) or packs of three pairs ($1 at the Dollar General Store) can be broken apart to extend your gift-giving to more recipients. Manicure sets and sample-sized foot lotion are available at a wide variety of department and drug stores, and at the Dollar General Store too (which means you could put together two foot-themed presents for only $5, total!).

7) First aid kits. Nothing says you care like a tiny first aid kit in a bag. These kits usually include wipes, band-aids, and sample sizes of over-the-counter medicines like aspirin or acetominophen (Tylenol). Other than the pre-packaged first aid kit, however, it’s probably not a great idea to buy individual over-the-counter medicines as gifts, despite the fact that many street people suffer through colds, flus and bronchitis every winter. Why is that? Many people on the street have health conditions that mean they shouldn’t be taking one or more of these medicines on a long-term basis. Another approach is to give a drugstore gift card in $5-10 amounts. If you choose this option, be sure to pick a local chain, since many street people can’t carry all their belongings with them across town.

8) Treats. Everyone deserves a little something in their gift-bag that makes them smile. You can buy a multi-pack of candies or chocolates that can be parceled out into several gifts. But if you do, make sure they’re individually wrapped. Street people, just like you and me, wonder about who’s been handling unwrapped food before they eat it. Coupons to local restaurant chains ($5 Subway, Burger King, others) are wonderful gifts – but be aware of which places are likely to be more welcoming to a street person.

9) Deluxe options. There’s no easy answer to the question of whether it’s better to give one fabulous, possibly life-changing gift to one person, or to give lots of great, smaller gifts to many people. What is absolutely true, however, is that you can buy some truly deluxe, practical gifts for the homeless for what is, after all, not that much money. Here are this year’s pick of the best deluxe gifts for the homeless: a metal picking-up-trash, extendible clamp from Target ($19.99), a sleeping bag ($39.99 from a variety of sporting-goods and department stores), your own, personal, collapsible rolling metal cart ($19.99 from Ikea), and a large backpack with lumbar support (REI Pinnacle pack, on sale $69.83).

But you don’t have to have much money, or go out of your way, to find a great gift. Grab a few things as you’re doing your holiday shopping. Plop your items in one of those thin white plastic bags (or in a sturdy bag you bought as a present!) and discreetly drop it with a homeless person, saying a brisk “happy holidays” as you power-walk along the street. But after you’ve turned the corner, if you safely can, pause and sneak a look back. What you’ll discover is that even out in the open, even with voices running through our heads, we all open presents the same way. Sure, some of us are furtive. Some of us draw out the suspense. Some of us savor the moment. But in the end, peeking through a gift is a uniquely human, universal act. The sight of someone sitting on the sidewalk, hunched and pyramid-shaped in an effort to stay warm, pulling items out of your bag and blooming with a huge, shocked smile, will warm your heart for days. By giving to, and honoring someone else, you give to and honor yourself. And knowing that you’ve possibly made the difference between whether or not someone survives this winter? That knowledge is also a gift you give yourself – one that can see you through some tough times of your own.

So give to the neediest, and, by doing so, you’ll invest in your own empowerment, health, and resilience this holiday season.

Still coming – the Doc Gurley Homeless Gift Guide Video! Stay tuned!

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