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‘A Gesture of Love in a Bag’ - The Vinnie Packs

The cold winter snap has crept up on us slowly this year but temperatures are heading towards freezing with every night that passes; and those who feel the effects most seriously are the homeless sleeping rough.

Homelessness cannot be banished overnight, yet the St Vincent de Paul Society, whose patron was known for working with the poor, is working to help those in the cold over the festive period and into the New Year.

In 2011 a simple idea was born. To combat the cold, the SVP began assembling ‘Vinnie Packs’ – a small collection of useful, daily items to be distributed to homeless people and those on the streets to provide them with comfort against the cold weather. Siobhan Garibaldi, who co-ordinates the project, calls the Pack ‘a gesture of love in a bag’, containing thermal socks, thermal gloves, a thermal hat, an emergency foil blanket, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a pen. Designed to be portable, the items were chosen with this in mind as they are small enough to fit into a pocket and not so important that losing them is too distressing.

Within three weeks, a thousand packs were made up for December 2011. These went quickly with an encouraging response. Initial success was then bolstered by the intervention of Arrow Communications, who heard of the project in a BBC report. Staff helped by assembling the second thousand packs in 2011 and have continued this involvement ever since.

In 2012, 5,000 Packs were distributed in the London area. To help create these extra Packs, minor offenders on Community Payback schemes were drafted in to help. Siobhan comments that “the experience of creating these packs forms an eye-opening part of their rehabilitation as they realise that there are people less fortunate them themselves”. The distribution process is simple but clever. As the SVP does not have the storage in London, the Packs are assembled in Leeds and then passed from person to person in towns and cities until they reach the capital via this national chain. Thus distribution costs are minimal and funds are maximised for creating additional Packs.

This year 10,000 Packs have been assembled for national distribution across England and Wales. Starting in November, by mid-December 6,000 have been given out to those in need. This year will break new ground, targeting not only the homeless but also ‘sofa surfers’ and those living in hostels who spend all day on the streets. The remaining 4,000 Packs are in Leeds and London ready to be distributed in anticipation of a cold start to 2014.

Siobhan tells me that items from the Packs are not always kept together: when someone knows they won’t need an item or sees someone who needs it more, they give it up and pass it over. In this sense, someone may have several pairs of socks instead of just one. She highlighted that they are not strict over recipients of the Packs because ‘to see the motivation of the homeless to come to a soup kitchen and queue for a hot meal is enough to show us they deserve one’. If someone has three or four, it doesn’t matter, she told me and they never question someone’s eligibility for a Pack - it is handed over with no questions asked.

Meeting Siobhan reminded me repeatedly of the words of the Holy Father who has challenged us the reach out the poor and needy and be ‘a dirty Church’. The SVP has always done this and its members must be greatly encouraged to hear the Holy Father’s encouragement to put faith into action and showing Christian charity.