Guerrilla Giving: How not to be a self-involved asshole

I first wrote and published this piece in 2011, and it is my favourite one to recycle annually, so welcome this 2022 edition. The driver behind this piece is simply that every single moment of our lives presents us with an opportunity to see an event as a thing which happens to us, or an event which happens in service of us. As a woman who firmly believes in God, and who works daily to exist in a state of remembrance, I have learned that the more opportunities I look to offer help, the more God increases the opportunities for me to in fact help. Kind of like the difference between walking while looking at our feet, or walking while looking at our surroundings; the more you look up and around, the more you see.

Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the one who is most righteous.’ (Quran 49:13)

Each one of us defines “righteous” in a variety of ways, right down to the simplest thing, like helping someone on the street, or taking care of a beloved. Some people will argue that people ought to fend for themselves, and if someone is on the street, it’s because they deserve to be on the street, or maybe they’re lazy and didn’t work hard enough to get off the street, and so to help them is not to behave in righteous manner, but rather it is to enable the bad behaviour which landed them on the street.

Because, do you remember when you were growing up and people asked what you wanted to be when you were older, and you said: “living on the street” or perhaps “sleeping beneath a bridge”? What about when you answered: “being alone!”

Yeah. Me neither.

If you believe that individuals experiencing homelessness have somehow earned it, or if you believe that you have a home solely because you worked hard and earned it, then you’re best to stop reading, leave, and return only when you possess more grace of spirit.

The following are my annual tips for the winter months, which you should carry with you throughout your year if you can. Reminders that the Christmas/holiday season sees the highest rates of suicide. I believe that the isolation of the pandemic will drive these numbers even higher, and inflation will certainly see people with two or three labour-intensive jobs struggling to make ends meet.

Now. If a regular everyday Maha with a full social schedule and a loving circle of friends can feel so alienated and sad over the holidays, imagine someone who is presently without shelter. Imagine someone who is already alienated and troubled. The majority of those experiencing houselessness have come from childhoods of abuse; more often than not, it is sexual. Another great majority have mental health issues. They have always been at risk, and being on the streets increases the risks they face.

That you are not on the street is not a reflection of a thing which you have earned, but rather it is a reflection of a history of love and community which took care with and of you.

The following are three options for you to extend love these coming months –

First is what I have been doing for over 11 years – I purchase dozens of gift cards and hand them out. Traditionally, I have chosen a different location every year, but it occurred to me that I should offer people a choice of which card they want, so this year, I carry gift cards for Shoppers, Hartman’s, Tim Hortons and McDonald’s.

(1) Every store gives a receipt per gift card; on the receipt is a number matching the number of the gift card. Tape this receipt to the gift card; on the receipt, highlight the amount on the gift card as well as the gift card number. On the gift card itself, write the amount in sharpie (because plastic). Many stores mistreat anyone who does not look a certain way; give the gift card as well as the receipt as a way to (for lack of a better word) prove that the card is a legitimate gift. See it as a form of facilitation.
(2) Humanize as much as possible – write a note on the gift card. I always write “Stay safe ❤️”
(3) Approach with humility and kindness. That you have money or are offering a gift does not elevate you in station above anyone.
(4) Do not center yourself; if they say No, then all you do is say Okay, thank you, and you leave.
(5) Ask their name. Have a conversation.
(6) Usually when approached, these individuals face policing, harassment and/or judgment. They are also not often given a choice, so I’ve noticed that people have to be pressed (gently) to finally say which preference they have regarding a card.
(7) Be mindful of intersections and soften soften soften your approach accordingly (i.e. a woman on the street is at greater risk than a man. A BIPOC woman even more so. A BIPOC woman with mobility issues even more so).

Second, when you don’t have gift cards, take orders. Meaning, ask people if they would like a coffee and a bite to eat, ask how they take their coffee/tea, and which item they want to eat, then buy it for them and hand it over.

On this note, I recently began walking with an extra collapsible umbrella. Give umbrellas out to individuals in need, because fucking imagine being cold AND WET?

Finally, there is always the option of what’s known as “Guerrilla Giving,” started by a garbage man in Edmonton. Each year his family and friends fill backpacks for individuals, and hand them out.

In each backpack they include:
A wallet with either monetary cash or gift card.
A personalized Christmas/greeting card, signed by the family.
Treats and snacks such as granola bars & soup packets.
Items for warmth such as long-johns, gloves, hoodies, tea light candles, thermos, toiletries, etc.

They target individuals, not those in groups. They avoid churches and shelters, as they want to give with no pre-condition of religious affiliation. They always shake hands, or hug people (ask consent!), and wish them well before they leave them to open their packages.

You don’t need to do this at Christmas. In fact, you don’t need a reason to do this at all, except maybe the active choice to be thankful for your shelter. To be thankful for your food. To be thankful for your ability to have a Christmas tree, at the foot of which your family sits. To be thankful that you were not abused. To be thankful that you do not have a reason to be on the street. To be thankful that you can purchase a backpack and fill it. To be thankful.

Happy holidays dear readers. Thank you for sharing your stories and your hearts, for uplifting mine when it has been prostrate on the ground, confused by Heaven’s will. May your season be filled with love, light, and warmth. And may you possess the generosity of heart to share these things with those less fortunate.

Photo from FinancialJesus(dot)com.