Through my years of working with people experiencing homelessness, I have come to learn that “shelter” is more than just a roof—it’s also a sense of being surrounded and held by the little things that bring us comfort and that give us a feeling of being home. In this sense, Seeking Shelter’s mission is today bigger than just helping people at risk of homelessness find a nearby place to sleep. It’s also about improving the quality of life and restoring dignity to the lives of the thousands of people who don’t make it to a shelter on any given night.
In 2018 Seeking Shelter launched its second major initiative, our Shelter-in-Place (SIP) program. Building on my experience doing “outreach” activities for homeless shelters in Missouri and Boston, the SIP program is a volunteer-driven project that aims to facilitate the direct transfer of new, unused consumer products to those experiencing homelessness in the City of Miami.
Most humans are faced with millions of consumer-related decisions throughout their lifetimes. People who are experiencing homelessness are mostly excluded from participating in this complex system of choices and decisions. There is no Amazon Prime for those without an address. And yet, at the same time, we live in an age of global capitalism marked by an excess of consumer goods. Desire for the next “new” thing, exemplified by the seasonality of the fast fashion industry, along with the inherent difficulty of predicting what future demand will be, a fact all manufactures and retailers alike must face, often results in the production and procurement of a surplus of merchandise. Simply put: There are too many nice things that no one wants to buy but that are nevertheless too valuable to be sold for cheap. To date, the Shelter-in-Place program has sought to solve these two problems by partnering with companies big and small to help them find ways to put these surplus products—from cashmere sweaters to granola bars—directly into the hands of those experiencing homelessness.
Through SIP, volunteers meet the unsheltered wherever they’re at. They go into the streets and into the encampments, beneath the highway overpasses and behind the abandoned storefronts, into the public parks and across the deserted parking lots, traveling the alleyways and footpaths that traverse the urban landscape of Miami. They go to these places as couriers of essential items, but also as neighbors and allies. Through the SIP orientation program (which all first-time participants must complete), volunteers learn to listen to the people they meet and thus to see them as individuals who are more than just their current state of “homelessness.” Through these conversations, it has become clear that even those who have little or no means of participating in the consumption of goods, often have highly articulated consumer needs and desires. Furthermore, many of the things that they want the most—items like shoes and food—are products that we have significant difficulties procuring because they are either in high demand, or because the supply of them is more limited.