Jul 20, 2012

Top Ten Things to Buy if You're Homeless

I recently found this article on the web, written by an older woman, named Kylyssa, who had been homeless: http://www.squidoo.com/what_to_buy_if_you_are_homeless.  It outlined what she would have done with $100 if she found it while she was homeless. I decided to test this paper with our street youth clients here in Austin during our self-care time on Thursdays.


We began with her premise that your goals should shape your spending. She proposed three goals: get a job, keep the job, and save money to get your own place. The street youth agreed with this goal, although for some of them it gets changed to include school. Then she concluded that to do these things, you must be clean, well-groomed, rested, and fed. For our clients, we could also added addiction free and well-adjusted mentally.


The first item on Kylyssa's top ten list was a backpack: a home for all your possessions when you are homeless. The street youth agreed. They often get one free from SYM or from Lifeworks. However, we don't always have them and we limit them when they are lost repeatedly. I challenged this group on Thursday to answer the question, "Is a backpack so important that anyone without it should be willing to beg enough money to buy one at Goodwill or Savers?" After much discussion, the agreed that a street youth should, no matter what. [We have yet to verify that you can actually buy a backpack used for $5 or $10.]


The second item on Kylyssa's list was a mylar blanket. She claims it would help keep you warm and keep you cold. Given that it's summer, it wasn't agreed that one should get such a blanket. But they did agree that a sleeping bag or blanket in the winter is essential. And they agreed that having a bulky blanket or sleeping bag can be a serious detriment to getting a job. Having a sleeping bag is a "tell" that you're homeless. (It's not allowed inside a public library, for example.) And there isn't any place reliable to keep the bag. So in the end they agreed that the woman was mostly right. A space blanket might be the best except for when it's really cold because it can fold up so small and be hidden inside your backpack.


The third item we discussed was bar soap and antiperspirant. To get a job and keep a job, you need to look and smell clean. Soap kills the bacteria that make us smell bad. Antiperspirant (not just deodorant) is very help to suppress sweating and reduce bacterial body odor. It is available in sample sizes from Lifeworks. SYM gives it away when we receive it and we typically give away full size solid, but it's not always available. We discussed that this was so important, that the street youth believed a client should be willing to beg to get enough money to purchase a good antiperspirant at CVS or a dollar store. Waiting for it to be available for free isn't consistent with their goals. This was an eye opener for some youth. It began to establish a principle: "Be willing to invest in yourself so you can achieve your goals. Don't wait for it to be free, but take advantage of free when you can."


The next item on the list was brushes for your teeth and hair. People immediately felt this was necessary. SYM has dental care supplies but rarely combs or brushes. Lifeworks provides sample sizes for dental care and usually has combs. The youth quickly agreed that this was a low cost item and they should be willing to purchase it for themselves at a dollar store if it's not available for free.


The next item was clothing. Clothing results in a long discussion about whether you need interview clothing or not these days. It was agreed that a lot of jobs are available without a suit or dress for interviewing. But it was agreed that a nice interview outfit--not dressy but smart--gives the youth confidence. So keeping a nice set of clothing to wear was agreed as a good idea. Lifeworks and SYM provide clothing regularly but nice clothing that fits is always a challenge, and it's not available all the inexpensively at thrift stores because so many people enjoy shopping that them these days. Our strategy is to help them find clothing and then see that they have the ability to wash them through our twice monthly Wash Day.


Undergarments were next on Kylyssa's list. A lot of street youth do without. The paper makes the point that this obviously makes your clothes get dirty fast. We provide socks regularly. Underwear is harder to find donations for. We need a good source of men's boxers from a wholesale source. This is an area to improve our service in.


The next item on the list was a plastic drop-cloth. Kylyssa recommends sleeping and sitting on it instead of the ground. Again, her main focus is staying clean once you've gotten clean. Our clients agreed it would be good. So many times they pull together a good outfit and get clean, and then along comes a rainstorm or they have to sleep somewhere nasty, and it's mostly lost. Again, our strategy is to give them access to wash twice a month.


Hats and gloves were next on her list. We give these away by the buckets in wintertime. They are compact and go a long way to improving comfort. They easily tuck away and don't scream, "I'm homeless!" like a stack of bulky blankets do.


Next on the list was a phone number. We totally agree. We often recommend that street youth sign-up for Google Voice so they have a free phone number and answering machine to receive messages on. They can even make calls out from a borrowed cell phone this way. And we tell parents of street youth that one of the best gifts is to purchase a cheap phone and a monthly pay-as-you go service plan for their youth. They can keep in touch with family, friends, and use a phone to save lots of travel time when they are searching for a leg up. Street youth agreed. They are fond of using Cricket phones, but we encourage them to use pay-as-you go service that is lower cost.


An address was next on the list. You need it to receive a W-2. You need it to apply for jobs. You need it to receive benefits. Many post offices, including the one in our service area, will no longer rent a PO Box to someone who is homeless. You have to have an address to rent a PO Box! Post masters can make exceptions and we encourage them to do so. Clients under 24 can use Lifeworks as their address. We plan to allow homeless clients to use an official SYM address in the near future.


Food is next. You can't be starving and find and keep a job. However, we strongly recommend our clients not purchase food often. Once you are in a work situation, you need to figure out how to cook as soon as possible. We have an excellent food pantry operated by Micah 6 and you can get a week of groceries every week. So we encourage clients to save every bit of their pay and not purchase food and drink until they are in their own living space. Of course, the lure of fast food and snack food and Starbuck's is hard to resist.


A watch was the last item on Kylyssa's list. We agree that it's important to be able to wake yourself up and arrive at places on time. We are able to supply street youth with watches if they ask and have an employment reason.


After this very long review of top ten things, I asked what was missed. Transpiration was the big item. You need a bus pass or a bicycle to get around town. If you only have bus transportation, your employment opportunities are severely limited. A bicycle expands the job circle quite a bit. Daily bus passes can be obtained through Lifeworks for those under 24. If employed, a monthly pass can be obtained through Lifeworks. We don't work with bus passes yet. There are several lotteries where you can get a bus pass maybe 25% of the time. There is a problem, however. To get any of these requires investment of your time (a minimum of an hour or two). That might be OK for a weekly or monthly bus pass, but it's hard to maintain daily. So our clients often choose which days to try for passes and which days not to try. This can limit their job searching time and taking care of themselves. We discussed how if they truly want to achieve the original goals: get a job, keep the job, and save money, they need to be willing to invest in themselves including a weekly bus pass! It's great to get it for free, but they need to believe in themselves enough to beg sufficient money and prioritize sufficient money to invest in themselves when it's not available.


Find out about SYM on going ministry needs to help our street youth on our web site.


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