Editorial: Charities Often Overburdened by Holiday Help

          The holidays are the time of year when everyone wants to volunteer and help those who are less fortunate.  Shelter and meal sites are bombarded with volunteers, all wanting to feed homeless people, or bring them clothing and holiday cheer.  Many are so bombarded that they have to turn away volunteers during the holidays.  Sadly, many meal sites and shelters are in much greater need of help throughout the year than during the holiday season.  The ideal time to volunteer is virtually any time but the holidays.  However, there are still opportunities available for those who would like to volunteer this holiday season.

            Despite the many struggles homeless people face throughout the year, food is one of the needs that Cleveland fulfills pretty well.  Catholic Charities, The Hunger Network, and a host of others do a pretty good job on that front.  We have a fairly sophisticated pantry system (though it could always be improved to provide more nutritious food) and regular community meals at a variety of sites, every day.  In order to receive food stamps, individuals are requested to volunteer 30-hours a month, so many meal sites often employ the same clientele who dine in them.  However, there are individuals who don’t frequent these sites or stay in shelters.  For these people, outreach assistance is often the means by which they receive food.  In fact, homeless people who sleep out on  the streets often get a better meal than those who stay in the shelters.  Food Not Bombs, for instance, serve vegetarian meals on Public Square every Sunday.  They’re not a religious organization, and would thus probably have a greater need for volunteers than a lot of other meal providers during the holidays.

            United Way’s First Call for Help monitors the free meal programs during the holidays.  They will provide you with the locations of meal sites and who might still be in need of volunteers.  If you are already involved with a meal program, or are already serving meals, please register with First Call for Help so they may send volunteers and clients your way.

            Another great resource is the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) Street Card. This provides homeless people with a list of places where they can receive assistance, and it will also provide potential volunteers with essential contact information.  A printable version can be downloaded from the front page of NEOCH’s website.

            As for other volunteer or donation opportunities, any shelters receive a large number of unusable donations, and also lack the space to accommodate such donations.  You should bear a few things in mind before donating something:  First, ask yourself if it is something that you want to receive.  For instance, would you want to unwrap a wrapped Slim Whitman record as one of your only presents?  Another thing to consider is that many people already donate baby clothes and small children, but older teenagers often receive few presents. The shelter situation in Cleveland already makes it awkward for many homeless teenagers, who struggle to stay with their families.  In addition, one of the fastest-growing populations of homeless people in Cleveland are teenagers.  The clothes which are donated often are intended for younger children, or are severely outdated.  Also, if you do send something which an older teen may enjoy, please remember to include batteries if it is battery-operated or any other needed accessories.  The best way to ensure that your donations are not wasted is to call ahead to various locations and ask them what they need.  Many shelters have websites which include ‘wish lists.” 

            Pleas also bear in mind that many organizations which help homeless and low-income people in Cleveland are non-profits.  They may or may not have the capacity to accommodate a large number of volunteers, or the work they may provide for new volunteers may seem tedious or unimportant.

            As a staff member of such an organization, I assure you that whet seems tedious is actually what most small charities need.  Such places often operate with few staff members, whose time is limited, and have seen volunteers of varying ability come and go.  Therefore things like envelope stuffing, cleaning, etc. may seem like a waste of time, but they actually provide the beleaguered staff quite a bit of help and relief. Repeated volunteering with an organization will lead to more complex tasks as the organization comes to know you and see that you are reliable, and will ultimately be more rewarding as you bond with the individuals around you. 

To contact Food Not bombs: 

Email:  veggies @clevelandfoodnobombs.org

To download a printable version of

NEOCH’s Street Card, visit www.neoch.org

 To contact United Way’s First Call for

Help:  Dial 211 (if you are calling from a

Cell phone or office phone, dial 216/436-2000)


They are also available online at


 Correction:  In Issue 72, we published a story indicating Food not Bombs would starting serving meals on Tuesdays.  This is not the case.

 Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine December 2005 Issue 74