When I was in college, I was a part of a group called YACHT, or Youth Against Complacency and Homelessness Today. Our primary purpose was two-fold: one, to educate ourselves about issues of local and glocal poverty; and two, to spend time with people who were homeless. This meant that for four years, every Saturday morning, no matter what, I'd drag myself out of bed, help pack lunches and bring them down to Philadelphia, where we'd hang out with homeless people.
During the winter months, we often took donations: socks, blankets, coats, sweatshirts. We did a sock drive during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in November every year, and we made bedrolls out of old blankets.
After college, I worked at a day center for homeless women for a year before I headed off to Camden and then grad school.
In any case, I know that this time of year is when people start to think about donating stuff. Let me tell you, people do like to donate stuff. In college, we usually ended up with so many donations that we had a full room of them in the basement of one of the dorms. And we used to get bags and bags of clothes at N Street.
Thing is, a lot of the stuff we got wasn't in good shape. A lot of it was just crap: ragged, worn, out of shape, lots of holes. We'd have to sort through the donations and we usually ended up throwing away a lot of things.
And that made me angry. Homeless people have dignity. Poor people have dignity. And they shouldn't get rich people's too-worn cast-offs just 'cause they can't afford new clothes.
When I was working at N Street, I made a list of things that people should think about when they're donating clothes, and I think that they still stand:
a) the clothes are practical. Homeless women don't need see-through tank tops, for example. They do need clothes that are comfortable, and they need clothes that they could wear potentially to a job interview. N Street had an education and employment program, so they often did drives just for work clothes.
b) the clothes are in season. Not the fashion season, the season season. Most shelters don't have the space to store sweaters in the summer, and your clothes will end up being donated to Goodwill or the Salvation Army Thrift Store.
c) the clothes are nice. Not torn, not stained, not so shapeless that you can't tell what it is.
d) the clothes are a size that fits the population. Many of our women, for example, were larger, and we get lots of small clothes that, again, ended up being re-donated.