Response to Hurricane Harvey Storms: Don’t Send Shoes. Please.

dont send used shoes Houston disaster Hurricane HarveyWith the horrific damage just starting to unfold from Hurricane Harvey, many people will set up donation centers for clothes, shoes, toiletries. Not a good idea.


The number one thing is, “Don’t send your used shoes.”

Compassionate people plus tough and tragic situations equal a desire to do something, anything, to relieve suffering. So we ask, “How can I help?”

There’s plenty of suffering to go around. From people who have lost family, homes and possessions from the recent hurricane and flooding in Houston to mass near starvation of Syrian refugees to the average, everyday angst that afflicts most everyone–well, we’re just not going to run out of instances that birth the impulse to help.

Where to start?

Here’s a suggestion: don’t send used shoes (or piles of unwanted clothes or boxes of hotel-sized toiletries). Really. Don’t do this. It makes things worse.

One veteran aid worker, pleading for a monetary response to a disaster in the Philippines, wrote about her experiences after the tsunami that hit South Asia in 2004:

“ . . . well-intentioned people cleaned out their closets, sending boxes of ‘any old shoes’ and other clothing to the countries.  . . . Heaps of them were left lying on the side of the road. Cattle began picking at them and getting sick. Civil servants had to divert their limited time to eliminating the unwanted clothes.  . . . Boxes filled with Santa costumes, 4-inch high heels, and cocktail dresses landed in tsunami-affected areas. In some places, open tubes of Neosporin, Preparation H, and Viagra showed up. The aid community has coined a term for these items that get shipped from people’s closets and medicine cabinets as SWEDOW—Stuff We Don’t Want.”

But we do want to help.

In doing so, we often make things worse. Too many pre-manufactured goods, too many well-intentioned volunteer mission teams, too many shipments of shoes can decimate already seriously wounded economies in nations or communities trying to recover from natural disasters. Too many unexamined motives for rescuing other human beings, too much ignorance about human nature, too much arrogance about our abilities to change the world–and we end up making things much worse.

I can’t fix the people who are going to suffer unimaginable loss in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. I can’t rebuild their houses or bring back to life their dead or find the lost or even wring out their wet carpets. But I can make sure I don’t send shoes and the clothes I no longer want and do make helpful donations.

That means money. Cash. UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) does very effective work. The Red Cross is already on site. Go to your local blood bank and offer some of that life-giving substance.

Let’s be helpful, not hurtful, in our responses here. Those emergency responders don’t need a bundle of well-meaning but untrained people showing up right now with trucks full of donated items. They do need funds so those displaced may purchase immediate needs, including shoes, new clothes that fit, and fresh toiletries of their own choosing.

When it comes time to rebuild, encourage contractors to hire locally so those hurt by the storms can bring in paychecks to start rebuilding their lives. Too much donated labor can hurt much more than help.

Let’s offer those stunned by loss the basic human dignity of funds and choice to get what they need and get back on their feet again. Our discards and other unwanted items have no place here.

They need real help. Read this for a harrowing first person reporter’s account of what is happening Sunday morning.


Photo Credit: Photo credit: Dave’s Domain via Visualhunt,  CC BY-NC-ND

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  • Jennny

    Well said, this is my particular ‘hobby horse’. Examples are numerous. After the 2015 nepali earthquake, a government spokesman said they didn’t need the crates of canned tuna that was clogging up the airport so that much-needed oil, rice and water couldn’t get in. I understand the prefabricated housing sent to Haiti was not fit for the humid climate and soon rotted. When a tower block burned in London recently and 80 were killed, local community centres/churches opened reception centres and were innundated with fresh food they had no way of preserving. They appealed for cardboard boxes to store non-perishable stuff and soon were overwhelmed and had to plead for no more to be sent! My DD was on holiday in Vienna when hundreds of refugees were trapped for days at the train station. She asked what food she could buy and donate, but the charity working there said they most needed Canesten and sanitary towels. (She put this on FB, and friends and family sent her enough money to buy the nearby Aldi’s whole supply as some stores were not selling to refugees).
    It’s hard for compassionate humans, it seems, to change a mindset to one of monetary donations being the best form of charity in many cases or at least first ASK the charity what they need..
    Sorry, off my soapbox…

  • Anne Burkholder

    This is so true. As the hurricane disaster response coordinator for the United Methodist Church after Hurricane Andrew left 300,000 people homeless overnight (the 25th anniversary of which just took place this last week) I cannot emphasize the importance of this message. Tons of old clothes ended up in piles of burning rubbish. It happens over and over again in disasters. Just imagine, what it would be like if you lost everything and had to pilfer through someone else’s old dirty clothes and worn out shoes. It destroys the remaining shreds of self-respect and dignity to have to do that. Cash, cash, cash. That is what helps folks get back on their feet and recover. We used to have a T-shirt that many wore following Andrew. “I survived Hurricane Andrew; its the recovery that’s killing me!” And, thanks for naming UMCOR – the United Methodist Committee on Relief – in your article. 100% of your donation to UMCOR goes to the disaster response for which you designate it.

  • celticcoll

    That is also the problem with charity and volunteer organizations, which only want trained professionals, today. All they want is money, seems if you don’t have money to give, then you can’t be altruistic or charitable in our world.

    • Pennybird

      I don’t see it that way. I think they are being practical in a time when anything else hinders the recovery.

  • Brendan Hickey

    We call them SUV’s – Spontaneous Unwanted Volunteers. Here’s the problem: when you deploy through an agency, you are supervised and supported so if you need help, there is a structure above and around you to do that. What to do with a burned-out SUV? What about an SUV who seems creepy, and yes, though most of the people who come to a disaster are good people, but the bottom-feeders come out as well. Agencies do background checks on their volunteers but a malicious SUV demands police attention and there are not enough police to help. If you want to go to a disaster and help, find a good reputable agency, be vetted, be trained, and then wait for orders. Yes, orders, and if that sounds authoritarian, it is and it has to be. The disaster created enough chaos. The responders have to be professional and disciplined and organized. There’s no slack – the disaster took that.

    Oh, and another bit of donation advice – nobody will ever wear donated unwrapped underwear. Ever. YUCK. If you are not giving cash, as suggested here, then basic undies in the original wrapper may be welcome.

    • Jennny

      I’m in a charity crafting group which sends much-needed warm garments etc to various charities we have checked out as appropriately distributing our goods. One woman knits lots of cute little pouches for a packet of Kleenex (in girly colours usually cos all over the world, she’s sure girls love pinky-sparkly things). They are added to shoeboxes. I asked my friend who visits orphanages in Kwa-Zulu-Natal, a very poor area, if these are actually appropriate. She says kids won’t ever have seen Kleenex and certainly couldn’t afford refills! Making women’s hygiene products WOULD be appropriate so that girls don’t missed 5 days of education every month for lack of them…and don’t get me started about sending prayer shawls to a poor place ‘to show the love of Jesus…’

  • Chuck Johnson

    As usual in an emergency, establishing good communications is essential.
    Correct information is a prime necessity.

  • Bruce Ronbeck

    To all the ‘just send money’ disaster relief “experts”: One of the reasons people send goods is the well documented misuse or lack of use of funds that were donated to help people in past catastrophies. The Law of Large Sums of Money.
    I get that victims of Harvey don’t need Santa Claus suits or winter parkas or high heels or used underwear, but these people have been soaking in Gulf water and sewage waste for the past four days. What dry, clean clothing are YOU handing out?!

    • Raven

      I’m not sure if anyone is an expert, and I am skeptical of anyone who claims to be. However, my fellow volunteers and I have hundreds of hours of training, done on our own time and at our own expense, in everything from ICS/NIMS to PFA. We are your friends and neighbors and we know what to do and when disaster hits, we are coming to help.

      However, if you don’t trust the relief organizations because someone else misused money – like saying that you won’t buy a Toyota because Ford Pintos used to explode in rear-end collisions – if that somehow makes sense then OK, where does that leave us? You don’t want established relief organizations but handfuls of untrained responders doing their own thing will make a bad situation worse – and it can always get worse – so where does that leave the survivors?

      Brendan

    • http://www.christythomas.com Rev. Christy Thomas

      Of course people need clean dry clothing. What is not needed is thousands of volunteer hours wasted sorting through other people’s hastily donated clothing that is not sized and labeled. Underwear must be new, etc. These things are better bought in bulk (often large suppliers will donate them) where they can easily be distributed.

  • BeaverTales

    I had a friend who talked about how back in the 80s a very large donation of brand new unused shoes to Africa destroyed a large segment of the economy in Zambia (Zimbabwe?). The free shoes became the prefererred footware for many thousands, and it put every local cobbler and shoe store out of business permanently, because no one can compete with “free”.. Of course as those shoes wore out or were outgrown, they became dangerous trash as you described, but replacing them became difficult since cobblers and shoe stores had been extinct for years.

    • Pennybird

      I’ve heard that too, and the same with our used clothing in general. Their textile industries are all but non existent because of our perceived charity.

      This is where I learned about the problem: http://www.povertyinc.org/

  • Pennybird

    Cash allows the affected parties the dignity to decide what is most suitable to them and their families, and proceed accordingly. I’m sure worn down sneakers don’t top anyone’s list of needs.

    My go-to strategy in the face of such calamity is give where I have always given, and on the same schedule. Because Houston is in such dire straits, it doesn’t mean that all children in my county are suddenly getting 3 squares a day. While I do understand wanting to help Houston, and since my charitable dollars are limited, I will leave it to the celebrity telethons and corporations to raise the millions, while our local food bank will still get a modest check from me twice a year. The problem in Texas is acute, while the one here is ongoing, and not going away anytime soon. And if I have a little extra to spare at the end of the year, that will go to my usual charities too, perhaps to help make up for donations that were diverted elsewhere this year.

  • Lady Alexandra

    You know, this applies to local aid too, on an ongoing basis. Just saying.