Lifting Spirits of the Unhoused

At the start of the pandemic, Santa Clara County shut down pretty much everything for three weeks. That was back in March. I’ve been serving unhoused women at Lifted Spirits for three years, and it was devastating to see our program closed. We qualified as an essential service, but protecting volunteers from COVID seemed daunting.

Undeterred, we figured out a way to serve the women that came to our program and dubbed it Lifted Spirits Lite. Gone were the days of respite from the street, hot meals, and a place to nap and socialize for a few hours, all the things we were known for. It was no longer deemed safe to invite women indoors.

Instead, we served women from behind an iron fence, lined with clear shower curtains. Masks were a must, along with hand-washing every thirty minutes. Patio tables pushed up on our side of the fence enforced physical distance from our clients. We were able to serve in what we now call “contactless” engagement. What strange times we’re in!

We rolled out racks of clothing and toiletries at the start of each shift. We provided the essentials: feminine hygiene needs, adult diapers for sleeping rough, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and other items critical for well-being. Hand sanitizer, along with face coverings and wet wipes rose to the top of the list.

Toiletry cart filled with essentials and ready to roll outdoors

We stocked our racks of clothing all summer long: shorts and dresses were available, along with t-shirts, straw hats, pants, and scarves, all donated by women in our community.

Lifted Spirits Lite: Outdoors behind our fence

A generous board member donated boxed lunches each week, and we had extra water on hand to get us through the hot, horrible summer filled with smoky skies and unhealthy air.

I knew we couldn’t continue our services outdoors during the winter months, but as the pandemic dragged on, it was clear we had to adjust once again. It took weeks of planning, testing, input from volunteers and board members, but in the end, we came up with a way to serve the women in a more sheltered way.

Sheltered area at the back of the building near garden

We created a volunteer position called the gatekeeper. I set up three stations allowing our volunteers to be indoors, one in the lobby and two more along the building’s back. A handyman repaired the walkway for safe passage, we purchased two large canopies and created a sheltered area along the back of our building, once a church. Claridge donated five rolling, tempered-glass screens, which we use as a barrier between volunteers and clients.

Donated Claridge Screens

It’s been a hit with the women we serve. They pass through our decorated lobby, one at a time, affording them privacy when making requests. They exit through the kitchen and wait for the clothing station under the canopies in a garden setting. We roll out a rack of shoes for self-service.

Lifted Spirits Lobby – Toiletries Station on the right

Women can choose two outfits per day at the clothing station. They can pick out a warm jacket or coat if needed and lots of wonderful extras like gloves, hand-knit scarves, and knit caps. They visit the final station for lunch and a few pantry items. The gatekeeper escorts them through another gate, where they exit on the sidewalk. This avoids passing others and allows for social distancing among our clients as well. Our gatekeepers wear a mask and a face shield for safety.

It’s an exhausting shift requiring a different approach with each woman’s unique challenges and needs, but at the same time, they are my favorite hours of the week. Getting to know the women, encouraging them, listening to their stories, all the while helping them choose an outfit or two is rewarding. It’s not about the clothes, but about the normalcy of “shopping” for an outfit in your favorite color or style. I’ve learned a lot. I work with amazing volunteers. We all support each other.

I really enjoy the behind-the-scenes work as well. It appeals to my love of organizing, merchandising, clothing, and decorating. It’s fun learning a woman’s style and setting aside items in her size and favorite color. Keep in mind that everything is donated, and many things are dated. It feels good filling needs.

We created a small Christmas celebration this week, serving close to 40 unhoused women in two hours. Our Board chair and his son played Christmas songs while the women waited in line. We assembled Christmas bags filled with soft grey hoodies, a $25 Target gift card, fuzzy socks, and other personal goodies. Mary ordered boxed lunches with a traditional turkey sandwich, and Sharon baked cookies in her scrupulously sanitized kitchen. Our new director passed out the gifts and offered hot chocolate after they picked up lunch. Barbara handed out socks, new underwear, and other essentials, dressed as the slimmest Santa you’ve ever seen.

I staffed the clothing station most of the time, and helped troubleshoot in the parking lot when problems arose. All the planning paid off. We generally serve 30 women a day, but we planned for 40. We served 37 in the first two hours, and we’re able to provide lunch and gifts to two late arrivals. I’m so relieved that it all came together.

Of course real success would be knowing these women were tucked into bed tonight, warm and safe, well-fed and at ease.

It should be criminal to allow men and women to live, unhoused, in a country with such immense wealth. It’s unconscionable. Our vision is to put ourselves out of business because everyone is safely housed. For now, I’ll continue to lift the spirits of others, as I work to keep my chin up.

I hope you are safe and warm, and most of all, healthy as we count down to the end of this dreadful year.

35 thoughts on “Lifting Spirits of the Unhoused

  1. You are truly a blessing to all of the women that you serve at Lifted Spirits, dear Alys! In addition to all of the essentials that you so carefully provide, you also gift each visitor with meaningful, respectful conversation. Everything you do is so vital to lifting the spirits of women in your community! The need has never been greater…
    Alys, I feel so grateful for the ‘gift’ of your friendship! You are such a blessing to all who know you. Hope that your family is safe this holiday season! Take extra good care of yourself as we head into the new year. I feel hopeful that our lives will slowly change for the better in 2021. Sending warm, cozy hugs across the miles!♡

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    • Dawn, it is so nice to hear from you. I’ve been largely absent from the blogging world, but hope to return in a more focused way in the coming year.

      Thank you for your always-kind words of support. Thank you, too, for your friendship. You are a kind, kindred soul.

      I am hopeful for the coming year: we’re rolling out the vaccines, civility will return to the White House, and we have a woman of color in a powerful position at last, one who will inspire a generation of young women and girls. It’s been an exhausting four years. Sending you love and a warm hug, dear Dawn. xo

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Alys, that was such an uplifting post, perfect for Christmas Day, to know that there are such good people in the world. I love how you have been able to support your women while keeping everyone safe and respected. Dawn is so right when she says that you gift each visitor with meaningful and respectful conversation. And you are right in being angry that there is still homelessness in the world. I hope our ‘new normal’ can include providing safe, affordable housing for everyone.
    I also hope that you are able to have a lovely Christmas. Even if it is different, I am sure you will make sure it is filled with love and warmth. Stay well my friend. xxx ~hugs~

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anne, hugs right back your way. We’re at the start of our Christmas here in California, and you’ll be starting Boxing Day when you read this. I hope you’ve had a good holiday so far. What a year!

      I’m with you on the ‘new normal’. We simply have to do better. In this country, January 20 can’t come soon enough. Then we can finally turn the page on this horrible administration.

      I’m missing my youngest son who couldn’t travel home for Christmas due to current quarantine restrictions. I miss him and I’m sad that he’s alone today. Thank goodness for his loving dog!

      I have much to be grateful for, Anne, and serving these women reminds me of that every single day.

      I’m so glad we “met” in this big, beautiful blogging world. xo hugs

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think if you asked the women who pass through your doors what the most important thing they received there, it would be the loving kindness you so lavishly provide. More heartening than a warm coat, more confidence-boosting than toiletries and more encouraging than the respect with which you deal with your ‘customers’. You truly do embody the spirit of Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful and heartwarming to hear of people like you Alys! Well done, and well-organized! You are doing a great job and I hope you can keep it up in the coming year. All the best and Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You are all working tirelessly doing all you can possibly do. I do wish they had other options than being forever on the streets. What can we do to help you help them? We are in our warm, safe homes while they don’t have that option. I really would like to help in some small way. Sending warm hugs and hoping you stay well so you can keep helping those in real need. Giant hugs.

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    • Giant hugs to you, too, Marlene. The short answer is that it’s complicated. The better answer is that it doesn’t have to be. We need significant improvements to our mental health care system, incentives to build affordable housing, social services, drug rehab, and on and on. 13% of our unhoused folks in this Valley are veterans. The opioid epidemic surely contributes. People die and the millionaire Sackler’s go free, living off the profits of addicting millions to Oxycodon. I could go on and on. I like to refer back to the starfish story. https://www.thestarfishchange.org/starfish-tale

      One action at a time.

      Giant hugs, Marlene.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so pleased that you have been able to find a way of continuing to help these vulnerable women, Alys.

    I hope you feel more optimistic about the future with certain positive changes in the US. It would be nice to think situations like the one you are trying to address with Lifted Spirits could be dealt with at a political level.

    How cold is it in California now?

    Merry Christmas to you and yours 😊

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    • Merry Christmas, Helen! I’ve been following all the Brexit drama and fear the politics on both sides of the pond have brought with so much unnecessary drama.

      I feel more optimistic these days as we get closer and closer to ending the US president’s hateful reign. He’s done so much damage in the service of his ego. Good riddance! Just 25 more days.

      It’s not that cold here and mostly still dry. We’re having a mild winter, sadly, very little rain. It’s 54 F here or 12 C for you.

      As for the politics of the homeless, it’s often a lack of will by folks who want real change but will say NIMBY (not in my back yard). Supportive housing has proven the be the most effective, but neighborhoods fight the presence for all sorts of reasons, many of which are unfounded fears or simply untrue. It’s an exhausting battle. Meanwhile, 196 people died on Silicon Valley’s streets this past year, an increase of 22%. Many of them were seniors. It’s hard to overstate the crisis we’re in.

      Helen, I hope to get back into this wonderful blogging world next year. I will come to see what you’ve been up to. Merry Christmas to you and your daughter, and Happy Boxing Day, too. xo

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      • The homelessness crisis does sound very bad. I can’t see the problem with supportive housing personally.

        On a different note, I’m glad that the US will be rejoining the Paris Agreement. Hopefully, lots of other positive changes will take place in just under a month’s time!

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  7. Of course it all looks perfectly organized and how nice to get those screens. What a nice company. The patio looked great. You clearly get a sense of happiness from it too. Important to keep spirits up and have a happy place to spend time at. Here’s hoping a new venue will be found when the time comes, I’m certain Lift Spirits is doing just that and on both sides of the fence. Happy Christmas my dear.

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  8. Taking the week off from blogging and other writing. However, I did want to let you know how inspired I am by this post, by you, and by all the other volunteers. You are making the world a better place, and this gives me much-needed hope. A very happy new year to you!

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  9. I love seeing all of the pictures to go along with the update you share on messenger. You and your crew do an amazing job. The place looks so festive and I can only imagine the spirits that were indeed lifted! ❤

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    • Lynn, it is so nice to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words. I read several of your posts on my phone last week, and I’ve been meaning to get back from my laptop to leave proper comments. I’m so glad the move back to the UK during a pandemic (you brave woman you) went ok. Happy new year. xo

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