Helping the Homeless: On-the-Go Bags

By Polly Conner
March 15, 2013

Homeless in Flint

I once had coffee with a homeless man.

It wasn’t planned or anything. It just happened when he sat uncomfortably close to me at a Starbucks in Chicago. Here I was sitting in Starbucks with my caramel mocha, Bible open having a quiet time, belly full from breakfast and blatantly ignoring the homeless man right next to me. After a mental battle of how to respond to his invasion of my bubble, I figured Jesus wouldn’t ignore this man so I shouldn’t either. I looked up, asked him his name, and started talking to him.

Two hours later we parted ways. I left that conversation with an entirely new perspective of the homeless. This was years ago but two things have really stuck with me:

 1) One of the hardest things about being homeless and on the streets is not being acknowledged.  As someone in need, it is worse when people simply ignore you and pretend you don’t exist rather than simply being blatantly rejected. He told me he’d rather someone make eye contact and reject his request for money or food than to simply pretend he doesn’t exist.

2) When I asked him what were the most helpful things someone could GIVE him he told me: 1) A night in a hotel. It gives a person a chance to shower, shave, sleep in a bed, and feel like a human. 2) Water and socks. Water made sense to me but socks? When I asked him to explain he told me how a lot of his time is spent walking. If he doesn’t have socks or they are worn down too thin, he would get blisters quickly. Not good for a person dependent on walking with no first aid kit.

Fast forward five years.

I am driving my warm minivan away from the mall on a very cold evening. I pull up to a stoplight and find myself practically face to face with a cold man standing on the corner with a sad sign asking for food. My mind is driven back to my morning with my homeless friend, and I am struck at what little I have actually done since that conversation.

I’m fully aware that I can’t fix the problem of homelessness, but I shouldn’t allow the feeling of helplessness to keep me from doing something, anything for the people I come in contact with.

This is where the idea hits me: what if I were to always keep a bag of goodies in my car specifically ready to hand out to homeless?

So, instead of just thinking about the idea and talking about it, I DID it.

*Update* Recently, a production company, Foreground Productions made a three minute video documenting my story and the idea of making homeless bags. Here is a short video sharing my story.

helping the homeless

I went to the dollar store and $30 later, I had enough stuff to make six goodie bags for the homeless. You can be sure the bag includes socks and water too 🙂

Here is what I stashed this round of bags with:

helping the homeless items

  •  A bottle of water
  • A pair of socks
  • Trail Mix
  • A toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Ibuprofen
  • Kleenex

I made up six bags of these items and put three in my car and three in my husband’s car. One is currently underneath my seat so I can easily grab it while driving. The other two are in the back of my car so I can easily re-stash when necessary.

If you have kids, this could be an awesome way to teach about caring for the poor and thinking about what their needs may be. It would also be fun to involve them in stuffing the bags and giving them away. My daughter is too young for this right now, but I hope we are still giving our On-the-Go bags away when she’s old enough to comprehend what we are doing.

I’ve had these bags in my car for a few weeks now and had the opportunity to give one away the other day. I hope and pray it helped him in some way. If anything it communicated, “I see you. I care for you,” which according to my Starbucks friend, is one of the best things we can do for the homeless.

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80 replies
  1. Dave says:

    Me and me daughter have thought about this. Like set up someplace with my truck with a big thermos of coffee and some kinda snacks. And buy gloves and scarfs and good comfy socks to give out. And even someone to talk to if they want. I think after the first of the year 2019 we will start this. It’s not much but if it helps someone it’s worth it.

  2. Ledene says:

    I also make bags for our homeless. Here are some of the items I include: tarp, scarf, hat, socks, gloves, feminine hygiene (i.e. pads), antibacterial wipes, blanket, lotion, aspirin, shampoo, soap, towel/washcloth, toothpaste/toothbrush, chips, mints, water, cup of noodles (hot water for these can be accessible at gas stations, libraries, etc.), paper/pen/stamps, envelopes (one homeless person I spoke to said it would be nice to write a letter to someone they know), & bandaids. I wish I could do more to help at this time of year (Nov) when it gets down to the 30s here…but I enjoy doing what I can…

  3. Stacy N says:

    Hi I’m also doing this with just Snacks and water, but may add socks. I made 20-25 snack bags last July 2017 and only have 3 left. I wanted to ask has anyone thought about marketing these or make a small side business with this and if so any ideas how. Not charging the homeless, but getting grant money to continue the process? I’m interested in trying to do so, but not sure how to go about this.

  4. Terri Garman says:

    I have been doing this same thing!! Mine also always have water and new socks. I include now a pocket bible and a card that says Jesus loves you. I have mostly snacks and a cup a noodle. Thank you for your love to the homeless.

    • Rachel says:

      Great ideas! We have also included a card that shares about the location of and services at a local homeless shelter in our town. They told our church that many of their referrals are from our packs.

  5. Lisa says:

    This is so awesome, and all these years later I have come across this blog. I’m not sure what or how yet, but we’ll get something going at work with this idea. I can’t wait to see what we come up with. Awesome idea and for such a worthy cause.

  6. racelle says:

    hello,my name is rachelle and i am very grafty.anyways i myselft have been homeless and have lost everything and hade to start out with nothing.any how i make magnets and i came up with an idea to make gift bags with kitchen towejs/kitchen rags/pot holders/meaursing gups/my magnets/bacisly anything small for the kitchen and i would like to give them to people who are starting out fresh and have nothing,any ideas on how and where to start?my email is [email protected],com thank you

    • Rachel says:

      I love your heart for serving others in need like this. I would search for local homeless shelters in your area and see if any of them help people get into permanent housing. I bet they would welcome a “house warming” gift like this to give to those people.

  7. Katherine says:

    We say in the $1 bin at Target hand, foot and body warmers. It’s been in the lower 30’s here (California) at night (not as cold as some parts of the nation). I aways feel bad when I am in my warm car and see someone in their homemade tent freezing. The warmers last for 10-18 hours depending on the size, but at least for 1 night, they may have a little bit of warmth. I grabbed some granola bars and ziplocs and after reading the comments above, have a lot of ideas to put in the bags to keep in the car.

  8. Joan says:

    This is a wonderful idea. What really amazes me is that 3 years after you posted this you are still getting hits and comments. I want to have our Sunday School kids make these after we are done with Operation Christmas Child. Thank you for listening to the Lord.

  9. Sally says:

    This is such an awesome story & very inspiring. I definitely will try this out with an additional bible tract or Gideons Bible so as to share the word of God with them. God Bless you for what you do Polly.

  10. Ali M. says:

    Great ideas! Be careful when giving out medications, however. Just because it’s OTC doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone.

    For example, NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, should always be taken with food to avoid risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Since the homeless do not always have access to food when they feel they may need to take the medication, this can put them at risk for GI bleeding.

    Another example is Tylenol. Those with liver impairment should not use Tylenol and neither should those suffering from malnutrition as they lack the necessary components to metabolize the drug in their bodies, thereby producing toxic metabolites that will cause liver failure.

    Also, do not store any medication in your car, even in glove boxes and under the seat. The heat will degrade the medication.

    These are just a few examples, just to bring awareness that not all OTC medications are safe for all. Especially in this patient population who has limited access to healthcare and may not know their complete medical history, giving them some OTC medications can cause more harm. I would suggest talking to your pharmacist about what may or may not be appropriate for this patient population.

    Ali M., PharmD

  11. Pat says:

    Oh, I have been wanting to do SOMETHING tangible to help those I see on the streets and felt badly as I drove by without being able to help in some small way. Sometimes I will have a few dollars on hand and give that way, but I felt like there was something better that could be done. This is it! Not only will I keep some in my car, but I think this is something that we would like to somehow incorporate into our business. Buy a certain product and a bag of supplies for the homeless? Will have to come up with a name that would be encouraging, but I’m excited about the possibilities and the ways God can use this. Thank you so much!

    • Polly says:

      So glad you are going to use the idea! It’s crazy to imagine the actual reach this post is having out there. Love it.

  12. Chairettie says:

    Ironic as it may sound, at church yesterday they showed pictures of our youth group giving out lunch bags to the homeless on Saturday and how touching it was. Then today I came up to a stop light and there was homeless veteran. I myself am a veteran and I could not pass this man up. I remembered that earlier when I looked in my wallet I had 3 crisp dollars (odd because I never keep cash on me). I rolled down my window and gave the man the only money I had and with a God Bless you from both him and I had to start explaining to my nearly 5 year old twins that we needed to pray for the man to get a safe home soon. Then I stumble across your post on Pinterest….this can only be Gods way of directing me to be more involved and I wanted to thank you for such a wonderful and blessed idea to give to those in need and help teach my children to be active and care for others. Thank you and God Bless you!

    • Rachel says:

      Oh wow, what a great story! It’s been a nice tangible way to show the homeless in our town that they are not forgotten. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but we also include now a flier to a Christian ministry in town that provides a “hand up” to people in this situation. It helps them find a home, trains them for the work force, provides parenting classes, etc. They told me that the bags our church hands out with these fliers in their top referral! So, you might keep that in mind if there is something similar where you live.

  13. Barbara says:

    Hi there,
    I actually had the SAME thought & idea here in South Dakota. It was mainly in Sioux Falls where I have encountered numerous “homeless” individuals over the years. Keeping a little bag? of much needed supply to hand out if ever the situation arrived. A homeless man approached my car once while I was waiting in traffic, I said I’d be right back. Got him a take-out meal/drink & gave him a few bucks. I don’t really plan to buy many more fast food meals, but I really did have this same thought about having things to give to those in need as the moments arise so “randomly” & you just wish you had the right thing to give for comfort, ect. :))

  14. Jamie says:

    There are a lot of homeless people where I live and I also feel helpless because its hard to help everyone. We are not well off so giving out money isn’t always an option but I love these care packages! It would be much easier for us to stock up on 5-10 of these beginning of the month and hand them out. I agree with not keeping water bottles in the car, it can be dangerous. I also think I might include $5 gift cards to fast food restaurants when I can, that way they can get multiple things from dollar menus.

    • Loren says:

      Freeze water bottles and put 6 in a lunch cooler. By end of day they are still cold some days with ice still floating. Nothing like getting ice cold water on a hot day. Plus you will always have water available for yourself or family. Walmart sells painters drop cloth plastic sheets 9×12 in .7 mill and 3 mill thickness. Hand these out with 30 feet of string to make an emergency shelter.

    • Cheryl says:

      I think that the gift card is a nice touch, but please be aware that gift card fraud is very prevalent these days. Sometimes a clever thief will clear a gift card of all its funds as soon as it is activated, and before it can be used by the recipient.

  15. AMy says:

    My son (13) and I do this. It is life changing to talk and visit with the people we hand these out to. This is what we include currently as it’s already getting hot in AZ: (we have reached out to family and friends to help with the needed items and have a packing party every three months – we pack 50 bags and everyone who helps takes a few to hand out)
    Summer List

    Non-food items:
    • Ball caps, bucket style hats, or wide brimmed hats
    • Sunglasses
    • Lip Balm
    • Gel filled neck scarves that you wet to keep cool
    • Small Puzzle books
    • 1 pair socks (new)
    • Travel size baby wipes
    • Travel tissue packets
    • Emery Boards
    • Small Deodorant
    • Band-Aids
    • Washcloths
    • Small paperback books
    • Small sewing kits
    • Shoelaces
    • Sun Screen

    Food Items:
    • Gum
    • Granola bars
    • Slim Jim’s
    • Snack crackers
    • Individual size bags of pretzels, trail mix or snack mix
    • Individual sized Crystal Light
    • Tuna or chicken salad kits ($1 each @ dollar tree)
    • Hard Candy
    • Small packs of cookies
    • Water
    • Gatorade or Powerade
    • Juice boxes
    • Individual applesauce cups

  16. Rhonda says:

    I love this idea! I have found myself wishing I had something other than money to give since it is illegal to do so in our city and I feel like money doesn’t really help the person anyway. Now I can have something ready to go.

  17. Megan says:

    This is a brilliant idea. Just be careful with the water. When bottled water heats up in your car (say during the summer and its 100 outside), it can leach harmful chemicals into the water. Maybe bring a water bottle with you, but don’t leave it in the car. Just grab one when you leave the house. It’ll become a habit quickly and you don’t have to worry about what is in the water you are giving away

    • Rachel says:

      Yes, good reminder Megan. I was thinking the same thing this summer. I think I’ll remove the water bottles in mine and replace with something else. Maybe a small gift card to a close-by fast food restaurant, so they can grab a drink and snack?

  18. bridget Johnosn says:

    I Love this idea, I am always looking for ways to help those I needs and this is one that I will use. The story is very helpful I even shared it on Facebook, I think when other ppl can understand a persons point of few they actually are open to help.

  19. anita says:

    This is an AWESOME idea n I’m so going to do this. I don’t ever have cash on me n feel bad when I can’t give anything. This makes perfect sense.
    Keep up the great job!

  20. Danielle says:

    Great story. I always try to give food whenever I can. One thing I was told by a homeless man was that he didnt have any teeth and wasnt able to chew the granola I was offering him. Just something to think about with the trail mix

  21. Jim says:

    Another great thing is to buy ponchos or tarps; even the cheap ones help them; they not only help in the rain to keep them dry (important at night due to hypothermia), it can be shelter or to keep all their belongings in a cart dry; it also helps to hide what they have from thieves. I have handed them out for years and am always thanked profusely.

  22. Liz says:

    We started doing this a few months ago. Our girls love this and fight over who get to hand them out. We are trying to tread the line of being loving and not enabling bc there is a massive homeless community here, and the convos we’ve had with so many. We want to help them have a better future ultimately, not just give them enough for today. We have started finding our local shelters to share that info with them and are even willing to call a cab or give a ride. We see the same man every day in the same spot. We have given to him a few times and now we smile and wave. And one lady told Jon she begs for enough for a hotel room that night, and has been in the same one for 3 years! How do you help but not enable. Encourage job independence, but not seem heartless? And how do we teach our kids not to be hardened to this community? Anyway, love this idea!

  23. Jill says:

    Thank you for the ideas Polly & Rachel, I was thinking of putting some bags together with my Bible study girls for them to have handy, practically showing the love of Jesus to them. I came across Ray Comfort’s article here: on sharing the good news with the homeless in this way and it is very good! Also a good reminder on not forgetting to include a tract in these bags as it is the most important need they have if they haven’t trusted in Jesus as their Savior.

  24. M. says:

    Bless you! I lived in chicago for ten years, and just decided to move back home to the south this month. It’s a hard city to survive in: mentally, physically and spiritually! God is being worked out of this country, and in major liberal metro areas like Chicago, twice as fast. Thank you for your courage to stand and practice what the Word says, in a time and a space that doesn’t usually commit the time to listen to what our hearts are calling us to do 🙂

    • Polly says:

      Glad they can be an encouragement to you. I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities to hand them out in Chicago!

  25. Mom o' 3 says:

    Maybe add in a bottle of hand sanitizer too bc if you meet a homeless mother it would be really helpful in keeping her baby and herself healthy.

  26. Meg says:

    I love this idea too. Our women’s Bible study group at church put together about 100 of these to keep in our cars to give to the homeless. We also included a handwritten notecard with a Bible verse and a message that we would be praying for them. This was some time ago, and now that my daughter is 6, I think we’ll make a trip to the dollar store to make up some more care packages! She is starting to notice the homeless and wants to help in the sweetest way and urgently says “mo-ooom,” from the backseat, urging me to give away all the snacks within my reach from the drivers seat.

    • Rachel says:

      Meg, I love the idea of putting a verse and a personal note inside the bags. We did that with the kids at church this Christmas, and my kids were so excited to pass ours out. Then, right afterwards in the car we prayed for the man and his dog. They still talk about it. We need to make some more soon!

  27. Melinda says:

    Throughout the year I look for bargains and sales for toiletries for men. I buy at Big Lots and the various dollar stores throughout the year so the financial sting doesn’t hurt all at one time. At Christmas I make up 100 goody bags for the homeless mission in town. They house 50-100 homeless men at a time. The men are allowed to stay a maximum of 90 days to have shelter and get their lives back on track; find jobs, clothing etc. I often wondered what happened to them during the Christmas holidays being without family and friends other than the residents at the mission. So, I put together these goody bags which contain a razor, shaving crème, toothbrush, toothpaste, bathing soap, deodorant, gum, candy cane, and comb. Just something to open on Christmas day. I’m not part of an organization or church but love to share whatever blessings I was given throughout the year with those who don’t have. I like the idea of the socks and that to will be added to my bags for next Christmas.

  28. Joan says:

    These bags are a great idea! I feel so uncomfortable simply giving money as I hope it isn’t used for the wrong things, you know? But giving tangible, useful things would be a great help…and encourage someone along the way!

    Thanks for sharing! (I came across you on Pinterest).

    Blessings, Joan

  29. Resa says:

    Hello Polly,

    I think this is a great idea. I myself recognize that my reactions have been more from fear than compassion. I love your idea and will implement it. I had apprehension about one item, though. I understand why ibuprofen was included in the bag, but I worry about the misuse of the product. Is that possible with the size that’s suggested for the kit? Thanks!

  30. Rose says:

    I am inspired. I’m so grateful to have happened upon your post on pinterest. I love the t-shirt idea also that someone posted here. i’m off to the store tomorrow to gather supplies.
    Thank you so much for sharing this!

  31. sharon says:

    What a great idea! I also find myself as you were on that first meeting. I think it is more fear than anything or the idea that it is a scam that I tend to avoid them. I am definitely going to prepare these bags. Thanks for opening my eyes and showing me that they are human also.

    • Polly says:

      Glad you are going to make some! It’s hard not to be skeptical of people asking for money but I figure that 1) if they are willing to stand on a corner and do it, there must be some need there. 2) God still gives good things to us when we ask with mixed motivations so who am I to withhold a potential blessing and gift to someone when God graciously gives to me despite my wrong intentions. Just something to think about. It’s freed me up to give more without worrying about how they are going to use it.

  32. Jennifer says:

    Found your link on Pinterest…I am going to do this too! My parents’ church in central FL does these “to go” bags for members to share with homeless they meet. I think it’s fantastic! As a mom I always have snacks on hand in the car so we usually give those. Post here: I need to actually plan it out a bit though to have some things to give they need besides food. Thank you for this sweet and simple idea of giving. God loves a cheerful giver! I loved your sweet coffee story…one of my best giving memories was when my mom have my husband and I $50 for valentine’s day in our college dating years. We went to a pizza place for our own dinner than bought pizzas to share on the street with homeless near our campus. It was awesome!

  33. holli says:

    This is a great idea. We did it last year as a VBS project for the kids and they took them home (well put them in their car). We had almost the exact same items (socks and water for sure) and instead of a bag we tied it all up in a large t-shirt. We have heard some good stories of families giving theirs out. We have a friend who always carries gas cards with him because that’s what he gets asked for the most is “gas money”. I really appreciate you sharing this, particularly the part about not ignoring them and how they feel when people pretend they are not there. Such a great reminder how to act human. I am so guilty of this at times.

  34. Mothering From Scratch says:

    {Melinda} I made homeless “to go” bags with my kids a number of years ago. And it made such an impact on them when we had opportunities to give them out. Sadly, I hate to admit I haven’t done it for a loooong time. It wasn’t a concious decision not to … life just got busy. Thanks for this reminder to not turn a blind eye. My kids are teens now, but I think they would still want to do this … it always makes kids feel good to help others.

    • Polly says:

      I think it could be a great project to do with teenagers! Especially the ones who are new drivers and might find themselves face to face with a homeless person on the corner. Hope you end up doing it!

      • gene pellegrene says:

        I was led to this site and thought I’d share. I have been making care bags for the homeless in my community in Chicago for almost 2 years now. I make 5-7 bags a week with around 30 items. Please check out the site when you get a chance. What started as something small blossomed into video interviews and actually helping getting someone off the streets. Thanks for doing this type of work and sharing a little more knowledge about how to help the homeless.

  35. liz bayless says:

    That’s awesome guys! I love it and am going to do it! Maybe you could put in a small Gideon’s Bible, or just some verses of encouragement or about Jesus’ love? That might help explain to them why you’re doing it and I bet they’d be more likely to read it after seeing the love from you.

  36. Donna says:

    thank you so much for sharing your story. I have always had a deep desire to help anyone homeless…but I have always felt helpless. I have seen these homeless bags on pinterest but never got around to making any. Well, this weekend I will do this…thank you for the inspiration and the spark I needed to do what my heart has always desired to do.!!

  37. Julie Geyer says:

    Oh, Polly, I love this idea. Graham has a HUGE heart for the homeless. I am gong to take him to the store and make these bags together. Thank you for this wonderful “practical” way to show love to the homeless.

    • rjwalker says:

      Please keep in mind that many of the homeless have tooth and related problems and hard food like nuts, or which require a good set of teeth to bit into should be avoided.

      Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, if fresh are good, with smooth PB – and coat both sides of the bread with the PB so the jelly doesn’t saturate the bread and make it soggy.