Opinion: Giving Out Holiday Gift Bags for the Homeless and Helping Myself by Helping Others

Items which were included in the gift bags

So many people have asked me what they could do since #BOOM!, the annual New Year’s Eve sober party in West Hollywood that I co-founded, would, of course, be cancelled due to the pandemic. I have to say, I was a little stressed. Many folks trying to get or stay sober, or to be among sober friends and fellows, depend on events like #BOOM to keep from relapsing.

My other stress was that I am well aware we have many guests that evening, guests who depend on all of the free food we provide and who take home snacks as their meal for the next few days. We never have turned anyone away from #BOOM because, as the founders, we decided that all are welcome, even if using, as long as they didn’t use on site or cause any disturbances. This is not an evening of judgement, but one of inclusion and, hopefully, friendship.

One member of the #BOOM volunteer staff, who did our security every year, was an original volunteer for The Tweakers Project. Since he was helped and placed into recovery services at no cost, he had a way of giving back. He would bring food to skid row every Christmas Eve and not celebrate with friends, but with folks who were on the street using or homeless as he once was. He did this yearly, until sadly one year his disease of addiction overcame him and he took his life. I miss my brother, Wolff,daily.

Jimmy Palmieri with septor given to him by Mayor Lindsey Horvath

Knowing #BOOM was off the table, I decided to see if friends would be willing to chip in some money for 100 $5 Subway sandwich gift cards. I posted it to my friends on Facebook – no nonprofit, no tax write off, just some of us chipping in. That $500 was sent within five minutes from the owner of Nasty Pig Clothing (someone who is my brother-in-law for life). Since that happened so quickly, I figured I’d ask for more. With donations from various friends – some old, some new, some in recovery, some not, and many missing #BOOM – I was able to collect nearly $3,000 in a single day.

I was overwhelmed! Now I could not only get the Subway gift cards, but also food, gloves, hats, masks, socks, candy, Gatorades, non-alcoholic handwipes, chap sticks, band aids, $3 in cash for bus tokens or something else they might need, and so much more (I researched what would be safe to put in bags).

Then I made 100 bags. Believe me, they were heavy! Then my dilemma was how to hand them out. COVID is out there and I couldn’t do it alone. I called my friend, Ilene, with whom I baked almost 1,000 cookies for the homeless last year. She drove me around to deliver them as well as helped me shop for hundreds of items for the bags.

I started delivering early and was able to do two or three bags a night (remember, they were very heavy bags). I’d place the bag on the ground in front of my homeless neighbors and say, “Happy Holidays,” then walk away.Some were so surprised that all I could hear them yell was, “Merry Christmas mister and God bless you.”

We did a big delivery over a two-night period after I had handed out bags on foot. Some folks were already sleeping while some were clearly dealing with mental illness. One person was smoking crack so I kept ten feet away and placed his bag down. He was happy. I don’t judge; I don’t know his circumstance nor do I need an explanation.These bags had no strings and no requirements.

As we delivered the last bag, my friend said, “It really does make us feel good doesn’t it?” “Yes, Ilene, it does.”

I will do this every year, regardless of whether we can get back to normal with #BOOM in person. It is as needed as #BOOM.

I will do this in memory of my brother, Wolff, and I will do this to give back what I have so kindly been given in the 12-step rooms – a bit of happiness, peace of mind, a cup of coffee and maybe a few snacks.

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