Many people hang out in downtown St. Louis on a Friday night, but not many of them are armed with garbage bags full of coats, hats, gloves and blankets. And yet that’s where I found myself, rubbing my hands together in an attempt to warm up—no easy task when it’s a mere 10 degrees and the wind is whipping. But this night was not about me or my temporary discomfort.
Rewind to a week earlier.
Homelessness is huge.
That’s the thought that kept running through my mind as I lay in bed—warm beneath my flannel sheets—contemplating the urge I felt placed upon my heart to do something for the homeless population in St. Louis.
I’ve talked to many people who find themselves in the same situation; they want to do something to change the world for the better, but they have no idea where to start or what to do. In the face of an immense problem, it’s easy to pack up our best intentions and head for the hills.
But this time was going to be different—this time I was going to follow through. Determining that was my first step.
In order to be successful in my endeavor, I needed to identify a specific problem. Homelessness is indeed huge, and attempting to tackle it as an abstract entity is a fool’s errand. I decided to focus my attention on those members of the homeless community who were suffering out in the bitterly cold weather on the streets of downtown St. Louis. I had spent many years working in the area and knew there were lots of people on the streets who never make it to a shelter. Perhaps they don’t have the valid ID that some shelters require. Maybe they’re scared of being separated from their partner or have other personal reasons for staying away. Or maybe they simply don’t know where to go. Whatever the reason, the services and aid being offered by the local shelters and churches weren’t doing them a bit of good.
Having identified a precise problem and the specific group I wanted to serve, I needed to come up with a practical solution and set a reasonable goal. It didn’t take long to decide that the best way to combat the cold weather would be by getting blankets, coats, gloves and hats out on the streets and into the hands of those who most needed them. And while I knew that there was no way I could help everyone or single-handedly put an end to poverty, I knew that if I helped to keep even one person warm I would have done a good job—a modest goal, but one that kept me from feeling completely overwhelmed by the endeavor.
But what was the best way to accomplish this?
First, I needed to gather supplies. I had a few things lying around that I could certainly spare, but not enough to get very far. I realized that the best thing to do would be to use the tools I had readily available, so I put out a simple message via Facebook:
“Here’s what I need and why I need it. If you can spare it, I can come get it.”
Over the course of the next few days, I was inundated with messages from friends and friends of friends. I put together a list of everything that was being donated and a schedule for picking it all up. By the time it was all said and done, I had an entire car full of boxes and garbage bags overflowing with winter gear.
But what was I going to do with it all? How was I going to make sure it went where it would do the most good, and as quickly as possible?
Simply donating the items to a shelter or dropping them off somewhere wasn’t going to cut it, since I had already decided that I needed to reach those who might never come into contact with the usual aid outlets. Direct distribution was the only way to go.
So it was that on a Friday night when the temperature had dropped well below freezing I met up with a couple of sympathetic (and awesome!) friends and set out for the streets of downtown St. Louis. Looking like some sort of gang of twisted Santa Clauses, we trudged through the snowy sidewalks with garbage bags slung over our shoulders. Whenever we came across someone who looked like they could use our help, we asked them if they would like anything we had. Most were quick to request whatever they needed, whether it was a heavier coat, a warm blanket or simply a new hat or pair of gloves.
When asked why we were doing what we were doing, our answer was simple:
“Because it’s cold out.”
By the time we called it an evening, we’d unloaded a good amount of what we’d brought and even had a surplus left over that I was happy to drop off at a reputable shelter the next day.
The whole thing was definitely a success, and one that can be easily replicated by anyone. It really was as simple as identifying a specific problem with a practical solution, setting reasonable goals, taking advantages of the tools and resources available and putting in the effort to see it through.