Wednesday, November 28, 2007

DIRECTOR'S NOTE: Too Much of a Good Thing

With Thanksgiving over and Christmas close at hand, the holiday season is definitely upon us. Like every year, with the holidays comes what we around the Street Sense office like to call “homeless season.”

“Homeless season” is the time of the year when everybody suddenly seems to take notice of those less fortunate, notably homeless individuals. Newspapers run more stories about homelessness, particularly on children and families; volunteers flood organizations that serve the homeless hoping to get at least one day in making sandwiches or handing out hygiene supplies; and donations upon donations of clothing come pouring in to all human service nonprofits, regardless of if they can even accommodate such items.

The reason for this sudden recognition of homeless individuals is quite obvious: the holidays are a time of giving and sharing happiness, so people want to give to those who have the least. Also the holidays fall conveniently at the end of the year when the forthcoming tax exemptions from charitable donations are at the top of many people’s minds.

But while all this attention to the homeless population is encouraging, it’s simply far too much of a good thing. Our vendors report becoming overweight because of all the donated food during the holidays. Also during the holidays, I have seen many vendors just throw out sweaters and hats instead of cleaning them because of their abundance at this time. Soup kitchens also throw out and turn away more food than ever during this time. And other service providers say their volunteer rosters for the holiday season are booked months in advance.

All this giving, unfortunately, is also fleeting. Inevitably, at the end of January, when people pack up their holiday decorations for the next year, so, too, do they pack up their giving spirit. Donations of cash and goods suddenly dry up and the volunteer numbers dwindle. And the media coverage of the homeless strangely stops for another 10 months.

Unlike the Christmas lights and holly wreaths, homeless individuals cannot be packed up for next season; they are with us all year long. On any given night – even outside the holiday season – in the D.C. area there are about 12,000 homeless individuals, a little under half of whom are in the District alone.

So as you consider giving your time, goods or funds this holiday season, consider holding off on that gift until another time in the year. Contribute a little extra money in April when you get your tax refund; donate bottled water, t-shirts and fans in July when the hyperthermia season is at its peak; take an extra day of vacation during the summer and spend it serving the homeless. Or better yet, sustain your giving throughout the year. Volunteer to tutor a homeless child once a week, help teach a skills training course once a month, or during your bi-weekly grocery store trip, buy a little extra to donate to the food pantry.

And most nonprofits, including Street Sense, offer automatically recurring deductions when you donate online with a credit card.

Thanks to everyone for thinking of homeless individuals this holiday season. But please, please, keep them in your thoughts, prayers and donations more than just six weeks out of the year.

If you need more information on volunteer opportunities, look at the directory on page 15. You can also contact D.C. Cares for other volunteer opportunities at

If you would like to volunteer for Street Sense throughout the year, please email Koki Smith at for more info. Or if you want to set up recurring donations to Street Sense please visit and click on “donate.”

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