Because What The Homeless Want Is a Swag Bag of Toiletries

English: Homeless woman in Toronto.

Homeless woman in Toronto. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rob came home from work one evening last week and asked me to add toothpaste to the Costco list. Periodically I venture into the warehouse for staples and as I hadn’t made a run in months (and am concerned about rumblings concerning inflation on the eating front), I was steeling myself up for the experience. This involves days of list making and trying to decide which day of the week is least likely to be totally ruined by spending a chunk of it in transit, navigating an overly large shopping cart among the shopping warrior class and realizing as I perused the goods that I’d forgotten to list about half of what I really needed and that as a result the cart was getting too heavy for me to push.

“You’re out of toothpaste?”

He prefers the organic brands and Costco is not into organic toiletries of any kind.

“No,” he said. “It’s for work. It’s charity month and we are putting together baskets for the homeless.”

By “we”, he meant the female engineers because anything even remotely unrelated to the process of pure engineering he now has enough seniority to ignore almost completely, and despite being a women friendly workplace, my husband’s employer is as traditional as any other when it comes to these things. Social committees, charity drives and off-site celebratory gatherings still are majority off-loaded on the females because we have the proper DNA for these types of tasks.

“Toothpaste?” I asked, thinking that if I were one of the legion of homeless that roam the metro of Edmonton, toothpaste would not make my wish list.

“Yes,” he confirmed.

“Because what the homeless really need is a basket of personal hygiene as opposed to something more useful?”

He frowned, “I guess so. I don’t know. I was told to contribute toothpaste.”

“Not mittens? Or a gift card to Timmy’s?” which to me seemed the more logical. “Cuz if I was homeless, a basket of assorted soaps and toothpaste would be taken as a judgement of my cleanliness.”

Because it totally is.

Handing out swag bags of this nature might make Whyte Ave smell better from the point of view of the local residents but it will hardly relieve them of the burden of negotiating the gauntlet of panhandlers or reduce the number of bike thefts.

“A really good basket for the homeless would have warm socks and a bag of loose change,” I said.

“That’s cold,” he said.

“That’s real,” I replied. “Where are they going to brush their teeth anyway? The transit station?”

They do, by the way, use the washrooms at the transit stations. At the transit station closest to the Fort, usually only one of the two washrooms are open on any given day and the line up of homeless washing up every morning pretty much discourages all but the most desperate commuters from bothering to queue up. Although I will say that most of the homeless men are pretty nice about letting you line cut because they aren’t in any hurry.

Fast food places and groceries are also well-known venues for hygiene for the homeless. The washroom at the local Safeway is a place best avoided in the few hours after it opens until someone from the store has a moment to get in there and clean.

“Maybe they can trade the toothpaste with a homeless family for something more useful?” I added.

“So you are saying that giving toothpaste to the homeless is not the best choice?”

“Well, it’s a veiled judgement and unless one can it eat or sell it on some oral hygiene driven black market, I can’t see the point.”

“The homeless deserve good teeth too,” he reminded me.

“On Maslow’s hierarchy I think good teeth fall low on the priority scale when weighed against long underwear and a shopping cart from Wal-Mart with a decent set of wheels on it.”

“We should be giving them shopping carts?

“Or bikes with baskets,” I said. “But I still think just a big jar of loose change would make the day of a homeless guy most of all.”

He shook his head, “I’ll pass your thoughts along to the committee.”

Trouble with these charity committees is that they are headed by people for whom being homeless is only a theory that they deal with once a year.

“What would I want if I were homeless?”

Toothpaste, of course. Something with tartar control and a whitener.


As we are already into fall up here, I would want cold weather accessories. Thermal socks? Or toothpaste? Not even really a tough call.

And change. Toonies or Loonies preferably but smaller stuff buys things too.

But they would just spend that on booze or drugs.

Sure, but they eat too. Just like we do, and you can’t barter with toothpaste at Tim Horton’s or McDonald’s.

All week Rob has been bumming coinage and paper off me because like the Queen, he never bothers with hard currency unless forced. We’ve contributed a fair bit to this year’s charity efforts at his company. The toothpaste is the only thing that rankled, however, as it feels like money that might as well have been put to the flame. I just have visions of perfectly good tubes of it being summarily dumped in one of the many trash receptacles that line the River Valley path system.

But, no one asked me, so I scouted out a couple of multi-packs of Colgate, and Rob dutifully turned them in.

It doesn’t feel like an accomplishment.

17 thoughts on “Because What The Homeless Want Is a Swag Bag of Toiletries

  1. Hi 🙂 As someone who currently works and has worked with the homeless in NYC, Atlanta and Texas I will say the homeless absolutely want and need toiletries. I remember setting up a food/toiletry drive in Austin, TX and we as we traveled through the city looking for homeless people to give items to we came behind a gas station and there were three en who created a home there. We gave them the food and toiletry bags and they were thankful but the most touching part was when one of the men gave such a heartfelt thank you with tears in his eyes for the washcloth we included in the bag. He said he hadn’t washed his face in months. I tried to give him an extra washcloth and he refused telling me to give it to someone else who needs it.
    I tell you this story to say, many companies may give donations from a place of seeking to feel good about themselves especially around the holiday season. Organizations like ours welcome all guilt donations. No matter what the intent is behind giving, we are thankful for them b/c the people we serve are thankful for them as well. Many of us start organizations using our own money b/c we believe wholeheartedly in our purpose and individual causes. Contributions from companies like your husband’s help to keep us going. We thank you for all you do. I personally thank you for caring, seeking to show your husband another side of the coin and still picking up the toothpaste. 🙂

  2. Many of the homeless ask for toiletry items. All that are offered at our outreach events are taken. I would prefer that they would not want these items as these are not my favorite items to bring and give. Alas, they want them anyway. BTW giving these things away does not preclude doing other things. Another BTW, everything done for the homeless is inadequate and problematic and open to criticism. Certainly everything I do fits that description.

    1. My husband’s company, like many, have made a habit of doing one off charitable outreach that appears aimed more at making people feel good about themselves rather than seriously addressing issues.

      It’s not just the toiletry bags. Another example would be the beginning of the school year backpacks with scarcely enough supplies to see a child through the year.

      Although I know that every little bit helps and is appreciated, they are still “little” and aimed at symptoms while causes go unaddressed.

      We certainly shouldn’t stop doing these little things but it would be nice if society was aware of just how inadequate these contributions are.

      I was hoping that by presenting it as “swag” might make those who never stop to think beyond donating, think a little bit more.

      Thank you for commenting. I agree with your points.

  3. Thank you for writing this.
    Homeless gift baskets and drives should be year-round, and not just Christmas. That’s something we try to emphasize at our homeless ministry, which is headed by a guy who was once homeless. They open the doors two days a week and went from a van going into dangerous homeless camps to serving 30 plus a day.
    As far as “enabling” the homeless, that isn’t the case with the homeless who have serious mental disorders and couldn’t otherwise hold a job.

    They can’t afford treatment, and there aren’t even many psych wards or hospitals offering the help they need. Others are kids who grew up in the environment. And yes, there are some drug addicts and alcoholics that went from success to homeless due to bad habits. But we don’t discriminate. Too many times during a dinner I saw homeless people that were my “stable” neighbors not too long ago.

    The point about money, though, is a good one. For the ones we don’t know and see on the streets, our leader advised never to give money. Instead, carry around some food/gatorade/water and a brochure to the ministry. I thought it was odd until they told me some walk 9 miles just to get a free lunch.

    Yet the most important thing we can give is a conversation. I’ve learned so much about the homeless from talking with them and counseling, go figure. The motivation to get help differs. It’s funny you mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy b/c that was my last talk with a group of homeless. We discussed the theory, and how with homelessness it’s actually a process that leads you back down to the basics. It’s rarely instant, and they agreed. The hope was that they DO get a hold of the basics- you know, toothpaste- and after getting them they can move up as far as they choose.

  4. Clearly you have never had an interaction with a homeless person. Homelessness does not just involve drug abusers and criminals. It can be a temporary state for many people – women and children too. I sincerely hope this is a joke because if it isn’t you need to take a course in humanity. One of the most asked for items of the homeless (many are living in shelters by the way) is toothpaste, shampoo etc. They are people, just like you and me. They are woman and children down on their luck. Do they want a jar of loose change? well.. do you? They are PEOPLE just like you. How would you feel if you couldn’t brush your teeth every day? What if you had no soap? If you and your daughter were homeless and you got a little money you would obviously buy food, right? You wouldn’t spend the money on soap or toothpaste because they are luxury items. That doesn’t mean they are not important! Can you imagine going out, trying to find work and make your life better and not being able to brush your teeth first? A donation of a tube of toothpaste could be a godsend to somebody. You are totally missing the point of charity. Some people actually give to charity to HELP others.. not just because they want to make themselves “feel awesome”. and “reduce stolen bikes and panhandlers”. I would venture to say that you have led a very sheltered middle class life. You seem to be lacking empathy for your fellow humans.

    1. Of course this was a tongue in cheek poke at the idea that a yearly charity drive is all that is needed.

      I was referring mainly to those who refuse to come in to shelters – many of whom in the area where I live are men, mentally ill and/or substance abusers.

      The families that you refer to are a whole different matter and often, you wouldn’t know them from anyone else. In nearly all the schools I taught at in Des Moines, we dealt with children who were living in shelters b/c of spousal abuse or joblessness. It was common in two of the schools I worked forchildren’s addresses to change at the beginning of every month or to discover they were living in one or the other of the sketchy motels or even at the campgrounds.

      A friend of my late husband set up his girlfriend, toddler and new baby in a tent at one of the campgrounds when he lost his job. He didn’t tell anyone. It was discovered by accident and we all spent a good week or more convincing him to take some assistance.

      My youngest sister spent two years living out of paper grocery bags as she and her boyfriend couch-surfed the seedier neighborhoods and trailer parks.

      My brother lived out of the trunk of his car and on the streets.

      Right after my first husband was diagnosed with his terminal illness, I spent about nine months on the bleeding edge of losing our house.

      I get righteous indignation and being affronted with those who approach the tragedy of life with a jaded sense of humour, but I didn’t miss any points at all. You just don’t read very well.

      1. “I get righteous indignation and being affronted with those who approach the tragedy of life with a jaded sense of humour, but I didn’t miss any points at all. You just don’t read very well.”
        I guess not.

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  6. the last time i contributed to a ‘let’s collect stuff for homeless people so we can feel better about our excess’ charity drive, i put together nice sets of thick sweatshirts/sweatpants. and into each nicely wrapped box, i hid a pack of marlboro’s and some McDonald’s gift certificates because if i were a homeless man, i’d want to be warm, have some fresh smokes, and a decent cheap meal in a warm place.

    i have to bite my tongue every year when the drives for “toys for homeless kids” starts up. yep. my charity is the food bank – monthly payroll deduction of cash, rather than november contribution of nearly-expired cans of corn and pumpkin from my failed plans to make something for the holidays the year before.

    oh, and as one of the few female engineers on the staff in my shop? surprisingly i never get stuck with running the charity drives. go figure…

    1. I bet your boxes were well received, and somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that you aren’t stuck heading up the drives at your office.

      We sponsored whole families when I worked at the hs. Our homerooms were supposed to look at the families needs and wish lists and shop for one item or donate a gently used one that matched. I left it optional for the students and one class stepped up but another year, I bought all the stuff myself. Even if the sponsored family asked for no toys or “extras”, I always tried to include something. What I didn’t do was give gift cards or cash b/c I’d seen first hand when working with a local charity to take kids xmas shopping that if you did that – adults in the family would take the cards or cash from the kids and use them on themselves.

  7. Toothpaste is not judge-y, it’s a luxury that many homeless can’t afford. Socks, underwear, and scarves are also good. I take issue with the giving of money as being “But they would just spend that on booze or drugs” because I don’t really care what they spend it on. They’re miserable, anxious, homeless, many are mentally ill, and I don’t think giving or withholding $5 from them is going to make some huge difference in their life one way or another. I’ve bought cigarettes for homeless people with a clear conscience. If it eases their anxiety and pain for a day, so be it. I’ve also contributed McDonalds gift cards — greasy, fattening food — and bus passes.

    Life just doesn’t work out for some people. Rather than judge their needs or wants, I’d just prefer to do what’s in my heart and what they might ask for. It’s just not that much.

    1. The toothpaste reaction was just my initial one and the change thing, I don’t care about either.

      The first time I visited NYC, my friend and her bf scolded me about giving money to the homeless. “it just encourages them” and a few years ago when we were in Victoria, I gave spare change away too, which my husband frowned at a bit for the same reason. Again, so what? It’s just change and I can spare it and I know that some of it translates into booze, drugs and some of it becomes a cup of coffee or a box of Timbits.

      I threw the line in because I know that this is why baskets for the homeless don’t include gift cards or a few dollars/ People want to believe they can control the behavior of ppl whose own loved ones can’t even influence b/c they are mentally ill or addicts or whatever.

      Don’t be so quick to assume things about me, k?

  8. On the point you make of soap, I completely agree. I also think that gift cards, warm socks, a bike with a basket, long underwear and other similar, practical items are exactly what is needed.

    I do kind of disagree about the toothpaste, though. Unlike soap, toothpaste really is something that is for more than just to, “make Whyte Ave smell better from the point of view of the local residents.”

    Dental care is extremely expensive, and dental issues can be very painful. Brushing your teeth won’t solve or prevent all issues, but it IS helpful. It is a simple step toward health. Anyone who has had a cavity that they were unable to get filled for years until it deteriorates all the way down to the root and causes constant pain will tell you that.

    I spent time at a dental clinic giving emergency service to the homeless in my community (it was a two day event, several hundred people were served). The free toothpaste and toothbrush offered to each person after treatment was appreciated. Most people I observed actually asked if they could take more than one tube of toothpaste when they left. And when I worked at a truck stop that had a large community of homeless people who used the bathrooms regularly, I often saw them brushing their teeth at the sinks.

    1. That’s good to know b/c it seemed sort of judgey to me. I supposed one can even use toothpaste without a brush and just having some access to drinking water too.

      The once a year baskets for the homeless though are a somewhat middle class self- ego stroke. I recall when I lived in Iowa that there was a guy who delivered bagged lunches to areas where the homeless “lived” on a daily basis. Just gave them the food, chatted and got to know them to the point where he could alert authorities if someone went missing or needed help. I seem to recall a person/group in Edmonton that left either bagged lunches or care-kits with winter gear on benches at regular intervals too.

      It’s really not enough to do something once a year and then call yourself “awesome”.

      1. “It’s really not enough to do something once a year and then call yourself ‘awesome’.” On this, we completely agree!!

        If you want to make a real difference in the lives of people who are homeless building relationships, contributing to long-term efforts, and connecting with the community is essential.

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