In 2016, I saw a Facebook post about a local homeless outreach that was scheduled to take place just a couple blocks from my office in Downtown Saint Louis. Having worked in the area for a few years, I knew there was a significant homeless community that needed help, so I showed up.
It was overwhelming with just myself and one other volunteer that day, but we saw very clearly how big the need was to help our unhoused neighbors, so we went to work on building a network of volunteers and donors so we could help more people. (Special shoutout to the Ethical Society Mid Rivers and St. Louis for being great partners).
Over the last 4 years, working with Atheist Alliance Helping the Homeless St. Louis (AAHHSTL) I've heard from thousands of clients. I've heard their personal stories, their needs, their struggles. These insights have shaped the way we've structured our giveaways, and what we provide. It's amazing what you'll learn when you listen to people. A good lesson in this endeavor and for so many others.
Want to help? Here are a few things I've learned:
• Most people just want to be seen and acknowledged. This is especially true in communities like the unhoused where they often feel invisible.
• If you're going to offer food, make it easy and portable. Look for pull-top cans or self-contained items (bananas and clementines are great). Don't assume someone can easily wash up if it's messy to eat or find a utensil if they need one. Also, look for soft foods that will be easy to eat even with dental challenges.
• If you're going to offer mouthwash, go with a non-alcoholic variety. You never know who may be in recovery.
• Not comfortable giving out money? Keeping a few city bus passes on hand is a great alternative.
• Non-food items are also appreciated. Notepad/pencil, paperback books, and AA batteries are all very popular items that are hard to find with many outreach groups.
• Bottled water is great, but a new reusable water bottle is more helpful.
• Keep seasonality in mind. What would you need out in the elements? Sunscreen or bug spray in the summer, then hand warmers, lip balm, or gloves in the winter.
• Be kind! Showing a little compassion may be more meaningful than any "thing" you could provide.
AAHHStl is a secular humanitarian group, and as such, we don't proselytize or require clients to hear a message before receiving supplies. It's very simple: we have the ability to organize and provide supplies you might need, and we do it because it's the right thing to do – no strings attached.
Today, AAHHSTL has grown to over 40 volunteers who help an average of 50-60 people a month at our supply giveaways. We now are recognized as one of 14 chapters nationwide of Atheist Alliance Helping the Homeless - a committee under the Atheist Alliance of America (AAoA).
AAoA is an incubator for secular activists and community organizations. They also work to normalize atheism, unify atheist organizations and provide humanitarian aid. AAoA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization started in 1992, making it one of the oldest atheist organizations in the United States.
Want to help us give back to the unhoused community in Saint Louis?• Watch for our next scheduled giveaway under events at AAHHStl
• Learn more about this local chapter on AAoA
• Donate gently used items (send DM via Facebook) or visit our wishlist
• Follow & amplify our message on social media: Facebook & Twitter
If AAHHSTL isn't a great fit for you, consider one of these other grassroots organizations in the St. Louis area:
STL Winter Outreach and Tent Mission STL (Both are operating right now due to COVID-19)
Carolyn is a volunteer and one of the chapter organizers for AAHHStl. This does not imply endorsement of AAoA.