Disclaimer: I did not write this article to toot my own horn - I simply want to describe my experience in establishing this program at my school in the hopes that other people can replicate similar events at their own universities / churches / community centers.
Before August of 2016, I had never spoken to a homeless person before. Growing up in Houston, I often saw them, holding signs on the side of the street or camped out beneath a bridge. To be honest, whenever I came across a homeless person, my thoughts would swirl between pity, disgust, judgment, and I hoped that they would not approach my car and ask for money. What a good Christian, am I right?
The week before my freshman year of college, I participated in a service retreat called the Plunge. The purpose of the retreat was to plunge freshmen into the San Antonio community, encouraging us to get to know each other and the various nonprofits in the area before school. During this time, I volunteered with building houses, visiting the mentally handicapped, and of course, feeding the homeless.
During my day with the homeless, I not only served a hearty meal but also assisted the nonprofit in collecting data on their clients in a survey. Doing so involved an extensive interview process.
I cannot fully describe the powerful experience that I had with those men and women. I learned so much about the daily struggle that people experiencing homelessness go through; it was truly a humbling experience.
While I learned many things that day, the one tidbit that kept popping into my mind was the fact that several homeless people are often arrested and removed from downtown during holiday events, because they are not "tourist-friendly." This is especially true for Fiesta, San Antonio's annual Easter celebration. Because the Fiesta celebrations draw in thousands of tourists, Downtown and surrounding areas are "swept clean" of evidence for the homeless.
This sickened me - how could we, as a modern society, discriminate against people already experiencing immense poverty?
After the retreat, my freshman year of college began, and life got busy. These thoughts of righteous anger drifted to the back burner as I learned to navigate class and college life.
My spring semester, Trinity's Catholic Student Group elected me to serve as their volunteer coordinator. I also took a one-hour Sociology elective class on homelessness, and volunteered weekly at the nonprofit I had worked with during the Plunge. As volunteer coordinator, I wanted to expand our group's reach across campus; I figured that promoting an interfaith service event would be a great way to do so.
My anger over the city's treatment of the homeless and my desire to build an interfaith service community came together - I wanted people experiencing homelessness to be able to enjoy Fiesta just as much as the rest of San Antonio. I concocted an idea that seemed crazy - why not throw a party for the homeless? Thankfully, other people did not think it was crazy and encouraged me to go for it.
After a long introduction, here's how I put together the party and how you can do so as well:
1. Figure out where to hold the party
I contacted a local church that regularly provides meals to the homeless. Thankfully, their volunteer coordinator loved the idea and did everything in her power to help me put the event together. If you are not already plugged into the social service community, call around to different churches and various homeless-outreach organizations. You will be surprised at how willing people are to help you help others.
2. Decide what kind of party do you want to throw
The church and I decided that hosting a movie and board game night would be the most efficient use of our time, since we could just display a holiday-appropriate movie on a projector and offer games for guests to play at the same time. We also decided on a fairly cheap and easy menu - hot dogs, chips, soda, popcorn, and candy - typical movie theater food.
3. Build a volunteer army
If you are part of an active faith or volunteer organization, inform your peers of your party and enlist their help. If you are a student at university or want to get your office involved, hang up posters and include contact information. Set up a Google form to keep track of who's coming, who's driving, and who's bringing what.
What helped me gather the most volunteers was cold-emailing students who I knew would be interested. I reached out to other campus faith groups, volunteer groups, and friends-of-friends - while most either ignored my emails or decided not to attend, casting a wide net allowed me to have over thirty volunteers at this event.
4. Invite your guests
People often think it is hard to reach out to the homeless community. In my experience of throwing these parties for two semesters, it's actually quite simple. There exists a huge network in the homeless community - people tend to help each other out and share news with one another.
What I did was contact the different social service organizations in the area to tell them about my event. Not only did I invite their volunteers to help out, but I also asked them to relay the information to their clients, who would in turn pass on the information to their own network. Word seems to travel fast in the underground network - we had over eighty guests at our event.
See if you can print out a mass quantity of small flyers and ask nonprofits to distribute them. Be sure to have the date, time, and location of your event - if it is held at an established nonprofit that assists the homeless, they will probably know how to find it already!
5. Create a schedule
You have a venue, an idea, and volunteers - now you need to decide the timing. Do you want to start with dinner? A social hour? Games? Now is the time to decide what are the most important circumstances for you to have at your event and implement them.
For my party, I decided to start with an hour for socializing and board games - I wanted to introduce volunteers to our guests, especially since most volunteers had never spoken to individuals experiencing homelessness before. We started serving dinner about thirty minutes before playing the film - just enough time for everyone to grab a plate and get settled in their seats. After the movie, we had about a half-hour for more socializing and handing out leftovers before ushering out our guests so we could clean the room.
6. Throw the party!
You have the plan. You have fantastic helpers. You have even thought of a few fun extras - perhaps a photo booth or balloons. The party starts in an hour and you finished setting up - it is time to let go of any residual stress and accept the night for what it is. There is nothing else you can do.
This is the hardest part for me - as an unashamed control freak, I panic a little when the night begins, because there is nothing else I can plan for. Instead of worrying about possible snafus, go enjoy the night! If volunteers have questions, they know how to reach you.
7. Gather feedback and evaluate
This is my favorite part of throwing these parties - listening to my friends' experiences and collecting ideas for the next one. Decide when avenue works best for your group - a google form, email, groupme poll, etc. Gather participants' opinions and talk to your venue and vendors - what went right? What went horribly wrong?
The most powerful experience from my last party was introducing two college friends to a group of my homeless friends. My friends from school had never worked with the homeless before - just like me only a year before them. It was so moving to hear them gush about their experience.
People experiencing homelessness are often the most marginalize and lonely members of our society. During seasons of family gatherings, holiday parties, and reunions of friends, they often miss out on experiences of joy, companionship, and socializing. If your heart aches for the suffering of others and you want to help, and you possess a certain talent for organization and hosting, initiating a holiday party for your local homeless population may be a fantastic way to reach out.
Just something to keep in mind this holiday season. Merry Christmas!