Donating a Difference
By: Matthew Yekell, 2019 Call for Kindness winner
Accepting one’s queer identity is difficult enough, but for many, finding a community where they can safely express themselves is impossible. I was lucky enough to be born into a loving family and have a supportive group of friends. However, many are not as lucky.
Queer youth in unsupportive environments frequently experience homelessness because of their identity. In fact, out of over 1.6 million homeless youth in America, more than 40% identify as LGBTQ+.1
For the 2018-2019 school year, I decided to do something to help LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness. The more I worked with young people in LGBTQ+ homeless shelters, the more I realized that the things we currently donate are often not useful and can even have adverse effects on those who are in most in need of aid. As such, those of us who can help must learn how to give in a way that truly makes a difference.
When we consider donating to help homeless youth, our first thought is often to donate what we do not use. While donating in this manner is well-intentioned, it is largely ineffective.
MaDonna Land, director of Tony’s Place, an LGBTQ+ drop-in center for housing insecure youth, observes, “bare necessities are not always those we think about… what we need isn’t just toiletries and worn out t-shirts, but we get plenty of those.”
In fact, when centers receive surpluses of commonly donated items, these donations can hurt more than they help, as shelters face a logistical struggle to find storage, sort through, and clean the donations.
In an interview, Land explains that organizations “really need items such as good jackets for the winter, USB drives for job applications, and socks, but [they] never get them.”
Even when we give what is in demand, these items are often in a state of disrepair. When donated items are in poor condition, it can be emotionally damaging for homeless LGBTQ+ youth.
“I’m grateful for everything that’s donated,” says eighteen-year-old Calliope. “It really can make a huge difference, but sometimes only getting old and broken stuff… hurts.” Even helpful donations can be both a blessing and an insult.
Throughout my work with Tony’s Place and other homeless shelters, I found that the majority of donated items are stained, torn, or otherwise unusable. Despite good intentions from donors, only receiving broken and used items can be dehumanizing.
Land explains that the way people often give “makes homeless youth feel less than what they are. It forces them to think, ‘you were thrown out by your parents and now? Here are my scraps.’” Not only does this cripple an individual’s self-worth, but it leads teens to internalize that they are undeserving of a bright future.
One of the biggest challenges in helping these teens is getting them to believe that they are deserving of a better life. All of that work becomes far more difficult when people are treated like animals.
First, we must call ahead of time.
Before we give, we should ask the shelters what they need. If you want your donation to make a difference, the shelter would know how you can best help. For example, a local hotel chain provides Tony’s Place with more bottles of shampoo and conditioner than I ever thought existed, so donating these items is unnecessary. Oftentimes, Tony’s Place needs items that we all have but do not think to give, such as USB drives for important documents, batteries, and belts. Sometimes, necessities go beyond what is seen as essential.
When giving to homeless youth, do not just give the bare minimum; instead, give what your teenage self would have wanted. Living homeless does not mean teenagers no longer have teenage desires. The items we give shouldn’t be what we think can make a difference; it should be the items we know will.
Second, we must only give what we would want to use ourselves.
Torn, stained, and damaged items should not be donated. Land says, “sometimes the kids have to keep wearing the same clothes for days because the clothes that are here are completely unusable.”
As a rule of thumb, ask yourself if you would use what you are giving. If the answer is no, you shouldn’t give it to someone else.
Anna, a queer teenager from Tony’s Place, told me that she appreciates all donations but when 50 brand new Adidas jackets were donated, it completely changed her outlook on her situation.
“How would you feel about having something new to wear for the first time in your life?” She proudly asked while wearing her now-one-year-old Adidas jacket. “It doesn’t have to be new,” she explained. Donations “just have to be usable.”
My own experiences helping out at Tony’s Place have taught me that when we give, we have the potential to touch and impact lives far beyond what many would think is possible. Just one seemingly-insignificant jacket can transform someone’s perspective on themselves, their situation, and their future.
1 According to Lambda Legal’s 2017 study, 78% of homeless LGBTQ+ youth were removed or ran away from foster homes because of abuse or discrimination. The majority of the remaining 22% of homeless LGBTQ+ youth were abandoned by their families or were fleeing an unsafe home environment.