Personally, I see this work as a sharing and a gift. I am not in any way trying to coerce anyone into changing their lifestyle. The vast majority of homeless people are in this situation because of random influences which left them disadvantaged. I can’t know all of this and don’t presume to know how they should live their lives better than they do.
My only goal is to share some of the bounty I have been lucky enough to receive, with them by giving them a small break today. To this end, I distribute my backpacks without any strings attached. I have no mission. I don’t require them to listen to my ideas or even interact with me if they are not in the mood. Human interaction is often hard for people who are depressed or under stress and I understand this and don’t take it personally.
I ask them if they would like a free backpack and if they say “Yes” (not all do), I give them one and leave. What they do with it is none of my business. The backpacks speak for themselves. I don’t stay to watch them examine the contents just as I would not want people looking over my shoulder in my life.
Some backpack projects have drives each year where they either distribute their packs as a group, out in the field, or they have recipients come to a central pick-up place. Some projects penetrate into disadvantaged areas of their towns and contact people in person. In my case, I carry my packs in my car and offer them to people I see on the streets and roads around the town in which I live or those hanging out around homeless shelters.
In all these cases, safety is your primary concern. The project will not go well if your method of distribution puts people at risk or garners bad publicity. Happily, a little common sense can alleviate this problem.
1. Do your giving during the day and in public places.
2. If you are uncomfortable approaching people on the street, take a friend or friends with you and don’t go far from your car.
3. Don’t take any valuables, jewelry, large amounts of money, electronics with you when you are out distributing backpacks. Dress plainly so as to be inconspicuous.
4. If you feel something might be unsafe or feel threatened about a person or situation, simply back off and leave immediately. You can leave your pack on the ground as a distraction and move away quickly.
5. Don’t press your recipients for more connection than they care to give.
6. I don’t use the word ‘homeless’ when I give out my packs. First of all, I don’t know or care if my recipients are actually homeless at that moment and I don’t need them to admit it, one way or the other. They may have a place to stay that night or that week but can still use the packs. Also, no one wants to be thought of as the poster child for homelessness. I simply say, “I make these packs up for people who might be able to use them. Would you like one?” I also reassure them that there are a lot of useful things inside and no used clothing or other cast-off items.
Whether you contact potential recipients on an individual basis or as a group, I feel it is important to show you respect them. Respect is the invisible element of this gift. It is also important to “read the signs”. On occasion, I’ve offered a pack to someone and been told they don’t want it. That’s their prerogative. It’s not my place to force it on them and I certainly don’t know if they need it. If I sense negativity, disinterest or anything strange, I thank them, leave quietly and go on my way.
Remember, if a situation or person makes you free uncomfortable, place the pack on the ground and simply leave.