Thursday, December 1, 2011

'tis the season, or something

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:
Make sure...
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.

Anyway, that's my brief (and grumpy) guide to donating clothes.


  1. Here from Slacktiverse.

    I am now feeling guilty about some of my past donations, and I'm wondering if you can qualify "ragged" and "worn" as deal-breakers. When I do a clothes-purge I always make three piles; keep, donate to Goodwill, throw out. Anything with major holes or stains goes in the throw out pile, of course, but I've put shirts with a little fraying on the cuffs or hem, or T-shirts that are getting threadbare, or blue jeans with (again) frayed cuffs or a small rip at the knee in the donate pile. It sounds like these are not actually helpful, and we should only donate items that are basically like-new?

  2. Hmm, good question. I think (having not seen your clothes) that my advice is "use your best judgment," but it seems that you're talking about slightly worn clothes--stuff that you or I would pick up at a thrift store. And it sounds like you already do throw out stuff that's really ragged--stains, major holes--which is what I'm really talking about in this post.
    I don't think donated clothes have to be like-new. I think my standard is usually "would I wear this?" I've got a pretty low standard myself in that I wear clothes until they're completely unwearable, but I think it's useful. Sort of a take on "do unto others." What I don't think is helpful is assuming that homeless people will wear anything because they don't have any other choice, which is what some of our donors seemed to think.