Coats before Christmas

It’s mid November, a cold, rainy one, with lower temperatures arriving earlier than we’d like. I work in the street selling newspapers. It’s a cold and wet job. But I like my job, I happen to like politics, and selling the paper in the street is perfect for me, even in the freezing rain. I’ve worked on the street for a few years, and every year I’m approached by “good Christian people” telling me, “I’ve got a great coat for you; I’ll give it to you on Jesus’s birthday.” I hope I survive till then. Would that make me “worthy?” For those holding onto the coats, does awarding freezing fall survivors with a coat on Christmas somehow honor their savior and make they themselves worthy of something? It certainly isn’t saving or honoring the poor and homeless.

It’s like this: I was homeless (I now have low-income housing) and I legally sell a weekly newspaper, Real Change, on the Seattle street to get enough cash to get indoors and buy food. I have a regular corner, lots of regular customers. Bear in mind, this is not panhandling. I have a nationally recognized paper to sell, a badge giving me rights to do so, and I pay out-of-pocket for new editions to sell each week, plus sell enough to earn my own corner. Like so many homeless and low-income people, I work on the street (for one of the few businesses that hire the homeless). And every fall I am approached by Christians bragging about hoarding coats till Christmas. And every fall I see families freezing. Why?

Here’s my advice to any individual or organization interested in providing real assistance. Step one: All year, take in donated coats, but offer them to the poor and low-income folks year round. If you’ve been homeless, or maybe you can remember a rogue camping trip, being outdoors even in summer can get cold. Also, consider donating a coat of your own that’s still in mint condition. When you have no home and are constantly exposed to the weather, you need a coat far more often than people who live indoors. Step two: Each week, or every two weeks, the coats that haven’t been selected should be taken to a thrift outlet like Goodwill or the secular Value Village, both of which can handle large volumes of clothing. Many of these outlets give discount coupons to people who bring them items to sell. Step 3: Use the coupons to help the poor and low income in other ways (buy baby supplies, tents, or bedding, for example, or provide kitchen items for shelters and group homes.) You could even give the coupons to someone shopping at the thrift store. Step four: While you’re at it, tell people that shopping at thrift stores is not belittling them. Plus it’s great recycling and saves the planet.

Whether you approach the world through a religious or a secular lens, it’s hard to argue that clothing the poor and feeding the hungry aren’t at the top of the the moral to-do list. According to the United Nations, one out of every six people on the planet doesn’t get enough to eat, and a federal report released in November found that nearly seventeen million U.S. children didn’t get enough to eat in 2008. (We can only assume things didn’t drastically improve in 2009.)

Certainly examples abound of religious groups doing right by individuals in need (Catholic Charities and Feed the Children come to mind). Moreover, these groups have much greater success in mobilizing volunteers and raising money. Others, like the Christmas givers mentioned above, miss the mark. But what about humanists? While the American Humanist Association does have a Humanist Charities adjunct, and October 18, 2009, marked the first ever National Secular Service Day, typically humanists will simply donate to the larger, non-religious charities like UNICEF, the Red Cross, or Kiva that don’t discriminate on grounds of religion (or non-religion) or promote one particular worldview. But if a humanist or atheist group does decide to raise its profile as a charitable organization, allow me to suggest a name: Coats before Christmas.