Last Christmas, a dozen or so groups independently decided to hand out food to the homeless around downtown Salt Lake City.
The trouble was, large charities that usually offer them help — including Catholic Community Services and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — had already arranged a steak dinner for 1,000 of them, with 100 volunteers serving.
“People were pretty full” by the time that dinner started at the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall, said Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for the homeless. “People came in and said, ‘We really want the steak, Pamela. But can we take it with us?’”
State and local officials cite that as an example of how Utahns, while extraordinarily generous, could be smarter about how they give — and how funneling donations through established charities can better meet the long-term needs of the poor.
“Please give smartly. Please give to the established organizations that can help their clients,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said at a news conference Tuesday.
Too often now, “good intentions lead to not-so-good outcomes," said Cox, who has helped coordinate state efforts for the homeless and cleaning up crime in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area.
For example, the homeless now often simply discard food or clothes that people try to hand them on the street because it isn’t quite what they need or want — or it causes fights, said Cory Young, Salt Lake City waste and recycling manager.
In December, “We send out crews almost daily to clean up items left on the street,” he said. “When my crew and I went out, there have been several occasions where we have seen a car pull up; they will hand out food, clothing. … As the car leaves, we will watch the items be discarded on the sidewalk.”
He added, “We really do want residents to give generously this season, but the option is to give to established organizations. … Bringing your items to the street often results in wasted donations.”
Young said spreading goods on the street also raises health and safety concerns. “There have been fights” over donations — so the city worries about safety for donors. Established charities have experience that avoids creating such problems.
Atkinson said perhaps the best way to truly help the needy is to go on the websites of major charities and look at lists they post about items they need, and then help them year-round with donations and volunteer service.
“Go on the website of Catholic Community Services, Volunteers of America, The Road Home, the Rescue Mission and Crossroads Urban Center, and look at the lists — and know those needs are there all year-round,” she said.
Matt Melville, director of homeless services for Catholic Community Services, said all groups welcome monetary donations — and especially need winter clothing now and always can use personal hygiene items.
“The next time you go on a vacation," he said, “grab all those toiletry items in your hotel and put them in your suitcase, and come and drop it off to a service provider.”
Atkinson also urged Utahns to give all year.
“I’ve searched the scriptures,” she said, “and nowhere have I found that it says thou shalt only give at Thanksgiving and Christmas.” But she said that is when the bulk of donations come.
“Let’s start thinking about [the needy] in January,” Atkinson said. “The Sub-for-Santa families that we all adopt, they have needs year-round. Pick up the phone on Jan. 2 or 3, and say, ‘How was your Christmas? Do you have any needs for the month of January?’”
Atkinson said, “It’s just a way to share the great spirit that Utahns have of giving and caring about others all year-round.”