Gregory Bull/AP/File
Beds fill a homeless shelter inside the San Diego Convention Center, Aug. 11, 2020. In overcrowded shelters, space is often prioritized for beds rather than belongings.

The things they carry

For people experiencing homelessness, grabbing a meal or attending a job interview can mean leaving valuables unattended. But solutions exist.

When I met San, she was painting rocks with nail polish.

The lumps of granite and slate were prized possessions, she told me one afternoon at a Boston soup kitchen. Some she gave away as gifts, others she left in parks for people to find – her little contribution of beauty to this world.

As San (I never did learn her last name) stood to gather her things, it became clear that these stones were quite literally weighing on her. A diminutive woman to begin with, San used a walker. 

How did she manage to haul so many bags? One by one, block by block, she said. Surely the shelter where she spent her nights could hold her belongings for her, I mused. She laughed. Shelters allow a bag or two, but not much more, she said. She didn’t even try anymore. She’d rather sleep in a doorway.

For people experiencing homelessness, keeping track of belongings is a full-time affair. Grabbing a meal or attending a job interview can mean leaving valuables unattended. Recently, communities have started to address that challenge by allocating storage spaces for people who are precariously housed.

In San Diego, the lesson was hard won. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city after homeless individuals lost all of their belongings in a series of law enforcement sweeps through their camps. The settlement included plans for a transitional storage facility with 300 lockers.

In Los Angeles, officials are offering storage space as part of a concerted effort to humanely relocate tent dwellers from the Venice boardwalk to temporary housing at a nearby hotel, as a recent cover story explores.

Across the country, Northampton, Massachusetts, is testing the idea on a smaller scale with 24 lockers after the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling interviewed individuals about their needs.

Lee Anderson, treasurer and head cook at Northampton’s Manna Community Kitchen, had seen firsthand that many of the soup kitchen regulars often went stretches without coming in for a meal.

“Sometimes I wouldn’t see a guest,” he told Western Mass News, “and I would say hey how come you missed the last few meals, and sometimes it would be well, I wasn’t hungry enough to risk my stuff.”

As San told me, when you don’t have a house or apartment to call your own, a bit of “stuff” can feel like home.

*          *          *

For our print readers, we’re trying something a little different in this week’s news section. In place of the usual Humanity Behind the Headlines, we bring you Global Currents: the ideas shaping the news. 

At the Monitor, we like to think we view the world a little differently. We know readers can turn to any number of outlets for reporting on what happened in the world. We look beyond the who, what, where, and when of standard journalism to untangle the ideas, values, and perspectives that are molding thought. These are the universal threads that bind us all together – and ultimately help us better understand each other.

Humanity Behind the Headlines will be back next week. But keep an eye out for a periodic return of Global Currents.

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