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.