Published December 23rd, 2014 at 7:00 AM
In the madness of the consumption and overspending that has become Christmas, there is nothing more humbling than knowing people’s lives will be changed by gift packages containing the most basic of necessities — toothpaste, undershirts, socks.
City Union Mission is a Christian organization located in downtown Kansas City that provides food, shelter and other assistance to low-income and homeless men, women and families in the metropolitan area.
I first volunteered at City Union Mission five years ago. I had signed up to wrap Christmas presents for an afternoon and ended up in a large, cold, white room filled with tables upon which were mountains of essential clothing items like undershirts, underwear and socks in all sizes.
The clothing I was wrapping that afternoon was going to the men who stay in the mission’s emergency homeless shelter.
Every year as the holidays roll around, the organization gears up for its seasonal “Mission: Christmas” project. Along with giving presents to the men at the shelter, the organization will provide 35,000 unique gifts to area families in their Christmas store, including home goods, toys, clothing, cologne and scented lotions. On top of that, City Union gives out hygiene items like toothbrushes and toothpaste as stocking stuffers.
Mission: Christmas also includes a shop set up downtown where families — to be eligible, you must qualify for food stamps — can shop for Christmas presents based on the number and ages of individuals in their families. This year, City Union estimates that it will help between 650 and 700 families from across the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Putting together Mission: Christmas requires hundreds of volunteer hours for sorting goods, wrapping presents and helping people pick out gifts.
Dennis Chapman, chief development officer for City Union Mission, said it is often the working poor that come to shop in the store – families with a mom and dad both working, but who still can’t afford Christmas for their families.
A slew of volunteers also take to the roads on Christmas Eve, delivering presents loaded into big red bags to families’ homes.
“We sort them by zip code and deliver them on Christmas Eve,” Chapman said. “And not just in the urban core… all over town people are hurting and need help.”
The families at Mission: Christmas come by to choose their own gifts for each family member, something Chapman said is important for the guests.
When I volunteered last Christmas, a young newlywed was able to choose his own gift for his wife while she sat in the waiting area. He lingered over the area with perfumes, scented lotions and body washes until he found just the right present. The package was wrapped in an opaque sack so she couldn’t see it as they checked out.
Moms are able to pick out one household item from a shelf that includes crock pots and toasters; parents can pick out the game or the Barbie their child has been wanting; everyone leaves the store with a warm pair of gloves and socks.
“I’m surprised at how practical their asks are,” Chapman said. “… It’s not like they are asking for the moon.”
“We give clients or guests that come across our paths the dignity of allowing to pick out what color sweater they want for their children,” Chapman said. “It adds a dimension of caring which is beyond handing them a sweater and saying, ‘You have nothing. Here is a blue sweater, and you will like it.’”
The men staying in the long-term programs and emergency shelters are also able to choose what they would like to receive each year. Chapman said he is always surprised by the responses. Last year, the men asked for watches so they could make sure they get to appointments on time. Another year, they requested duffle bags with wheels. Everything they own, they carry, and trash bags snag easily. This year the choice was long underwear.
“I’m surprised at how practical their asks are,” Chapman said. “This year they asked for long underwear, which is practical if you are going to be out under a bridge. It’s not like they are asking for the moon.”
Along with the donations that roll into Mission: Christmas, the organization hunts down enough duffle bags or watches for the men in their shelters. There are currently about 350 men housed in the emergency shelter, a night-to-night living arrangement. About 100 men are in the long-term shelter where they stay for a year and work on job skills and finding stable living environments.
Chapman said about 40 percent of the men recently staying in the emergency shelter identified as being first-time homeless. This time of year, there are usually 300 guests in the shelter nightly. This year need seems to be unusually high, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the number hits 400 at some point this winter.
The organization also has an emergency family shelter that holds 130 people and is typically close to capacity. The long-term family shelter houses up to 50 people. About one-quarter of those staying in the family shelters at any time are children.
City Union Mission now provides about 75 percent of the emergency shelter space in Kansas City. The growth in need for emergency shelter is in part due to a lagging economy, but also because there are fewer places for them to stay than in the past. Some agencies in the area are diverting resources from emergency shelters to a focus known as “housing next.” Instead of offering emergency places to stay, the focus is on helping people solve problems like unemployment and debt and then assist people with finding a home.
“This is a good mission, but it leaves fewer places for homeless people to stay short-term,” Chapman said. “We have more clients than we can help.”