When the Homeless Christmas Wish-list initiative was created seven years ago in Vancouver, the organizers wanted to create a practical way for city residents to help meet the needs of the poor at Christmas.
Every year since 2005, volunteers at Homeless Christmas Wish-list have done just that — connecting homeless people to gifts they need without money exchanging hands directly.
"The reason this is beneficial is it is so personal. We talk to people and get their stories and they make their gift request," said volunteer media coordinator Erin St. Jean. "It’s giving the public an opportunity to help give and connect with homeless people in a really safe way."
The gift list is gathered by volunteers, who interview homeless people at shelters around Vancouver to find out what they want for Christmas. Their profile and wish-list is posted online, where donors can choose a gift to purchase.
The gifts – varying from the typical jackets, socks and mittens, to the atypical cowboy boots and a beard trimmer – are wrapped and delivered to the shelter on Christmas Day.
The first profiles and wish-lists for this year were posted this past weekend. St. Jean said they have to wait until closer to Christmas for more profiles and wishes on the site due to the transient lifestyle of people living at the city’s shelters. Those interviewed are only required to give their first name and last initial.
Last year, the program helped connect over 350 people to gifts. One of those people was "Theresa R.", a 53-year-old woman originally from Scotland, who requested socks and a ladies electric shaver. According to her profile, Theresa moved to Vancouver with her three children 20 years ago to escape an abusive relationship. Now she’s hoping to land housing and find employment as a homecare worker for seniors.
A common request found on the wish-lists is bus passes, which St. Jean said are often returns tickets for people hoping to visit family at Christmas.
But there are simple requests for transit passes as well. That’s what Kathrynne W., a 31-year-old woman from Langley, received last year, along with a phone card. In the past she worked in filmmaking with the audio/visual department at B.C. Hydro, but said mental health challenges make it hard for her to enjoy life.
St. Jean said the charity fulfilled gift requests for more than 350 people last year. And as they took in nearly 650 gifts, many people received two. Some of the gifts included personalized letters sent by donors.
She said the response from the homeless when they received the gifts was rewarding.
"There's always people coming back and people are always overcome, especially when they get personal letters from people," she said. "The most encouraging thing is not the gift — it's knowing that people care about them."
According to St. Jean, the project is moving in the direction organizers had hoped for, and is expanding to cities across Canada and in the United States, including most recently in Los Angeles.
"It's been contagious because people are so excited by the idea."
More information and personal profiles can be found at homelesspartners.com