Goodwill is a great charity, and they make it easy to de-clutter. It's a safe way to give to people without actually interacting with folks who could potentially be dangerous. But it's important to be aware of who and what we are actually donating to. When I was young, I assumed that stuff donated to Goodwill would help out poor people, and that was what I wanted to do. But that's only partially true. Goodwill's focus is to train and employ people with disabilities -- also, of course, a very worthwhile mission, and they're good at it. Our donations provide their products, and the sale of those products creates jobs. It also pays their administrative costs, store expenses, PR, and so on. Good stuff, all of it. Most of all, it requires nothing of us but our discarded junk.
But when I donate a blanket, I don't want it to just be the cheapest blanket an able-bodied customer can find because they're being frugal. I want it to warm someone who can't buy a blanket.
With the drastic increase in homelessness since the recession, it's pretty easy to find somebody who needs a blanket, or a jacket or shoes or an old tarp or tent. There are thousands of new homeless -- people who don't know how to make it on the street. These people have their belongings stolen because they don't know the storage tricks that long-term street people know. They don't know where to find free meals, or how to work the system to get a spot in an overnight shelter.
One man approached me yesterday and asked if I would talk to him for a minute. He walked along with me as I rushed from the parking lot to my booth. He explained that he'd graduated from a rehab program, gotten some job training, and was starting a job this week. His only remaining problem was that he had to have an address before he started work. He'd lined up an apartment, but couldn't move in until the day after he started. I know this sounds like it could be an elaborate con, and maybe it was, but he went on to explain where he planned to stay for the next few nights, what it cost, and that any contribution directly to that motel would really help. Even still it could be an elaborate ruse, but I don't care.
It's not my job to vet everybody who asks for help. It's my job to give whatever help I can. Let the liars and thieves and con men answer to a higher judge. Since I was off to my booth to raise funds to help people on the street, it was easy to just hand this man a little cash. What he does with it is his business. I wish I'd had some of the clothes and shoes that were sitting in boxes in the garage to share with him. I wish I'd had some of the sandwiches we've been madly assembling this week while the bread is still fresh enough. I especially wished that I could believe the story of a man down on his luck just needing a small favor, instead of wondering what his game was and whether he was genuine. Part of what makes it so hard to help people is that we're hardened by all the lazy and embittered people who will do anything for a handout, or at least our assumption that they're conning us.
The more I work with the homeless, the more I realize that the majority of them are good, honest people. The crooked ones rarely live on the street for very long. I'm especially concerned for the young people out there, teens and young adults. Human trafficking is a huge problem, especially in Portland. Rather than trying to con us out of a few dollars, these people are at extremely high risk of falling for a much greater con, going along with someone who claims to have a job for them, and finding themselves sold into slavery or the sex trade. Yes, it really does happen, right here in Portland, horribly, inexcusably often.
We have to get over our worries about whether someone is really in need. We have to become aware of their needs, and help where and when we can. We have to be willing to listen, and sometimes even take a little risk. We have to be brave enough to care.