If you're homeless, soap is easy to come by at the Day Center. So is shampoo, conditioner, lotion, shaving cream, band-aids, camp candles and weak coffee. Aspirin, combs, bath gel, plastic bags, Q-tips, sample-size deodorant (or a shot from a spray can), burn ointment and foot powder are usually on hand, any of it for the asking.
But then we move into the category of scarce items, high demand and irregular supply.
Cough drops, hand warmers, gloves, hair ties, dental floss, after shave and mouthwash (non-alcohol only), tampons (pads are usually available) and hair spray come and go.
Today, all we had available of these was one partial bottle of spray gel. A small supply of Chap Stick came in. I also found behind the counter a new tube of hemorrhoid cream—or maybe we've always had it and no one's ever asked.
Finally, the items guests must sign for—the controlled substances I dole out from the supply window. These include razors, toothbrushes and socks. The idea behind keeping a log for these items is to signal their scarcity and relative value. The rules for how often someone can get a new pair of socks tend to be fluid, since the volunteers behind the window change daily and their relative soft-heartedness varies, too.
So, too, does the reusability of the items. Razors of the plastic disposable variety can range from a single blade Bic to a hospital-supply-grade double blade to a Gillette CustomPlus Pivoting Razor with Lubrastrip & Aloe and a Softer UltraGrip.
Obviously, we aren't going to hand out a new one of those babies to you every day.
Toothbrushes should last a while and we can run short, so we ration them, along with travel-size toothpaste tubes. The selection here can run between brand names and generics, with a preference for the brands. I tried to pass off a no-name tube to a woman last week and began to understand why.
"God, no," she said. "This is what they give you in prison."
Socks are very critical for people who spend so much time on their feet—walking, waiting for the bus, trying not to look like they are loitering—and whose shoes may get wet and not have a chance to dry. (Socks are usually worn at night for warmth, too.) A lack of fresh socks creates foot problems. Dark socks create more issues and reactions than white, apparently because of the dye.
If you feel like you should help a street person but don't want to hand over cash, a clean pair of socks will be valued even more than a free meal. Food can be had, but socks are golden.
I haven't covered all the items we provide but you get the idea. Even the most expensive of these costs under $2, and some are pennies. You probably have almost all of them in your bathroom right now.
If you don't have a secure place for your possessions, a lot of this is excess baggage, though. Imagine walking around every day carrying the contents of your medicine cabinet and one or two drawers in case you needed something. You wouldn't do it, either.
But imagine also having to ask for every little thing, how that would wear on you over time. How it would remind you of your addiction, your mental condition, your lack of a job, the randomness and regimentation of finding a bed for the night.
It's not just the toothpaste that's like what they give you in prison.