Izzy Thomson

By Brian Morris

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

As colder weather bears down on Cape Cod, the area homeless and needy gear up to meet the challenges of winter as best they can. Some have temporary housing. Some stay in shelters or halfway houses, while others are forced to camp out in the woods. There's a pressing need at this time of year for clothing, shoes, toiletries, backpacks and other necessities. One local volunteer rallies a grass-roots network of friends, fellow parishioners, and sometimes strangers, to help meet the need.

At the Salvation Army on a recent Thursday morning, volunteers arrange shirts, shoes, underwear and socks on a long row of white folding tables. A small group of people wait outside, and they're let in at 11:30 to begin sifting through the merchandise. One of the men, who gives his name as Dave, finds a perfect pair of boots.

Dave: "I just went through a divorce. It's like, the worst my life's ever been. So it's good to know there's some kinda programs and help for people who need it. I'm pretty self-sufficient, I think. But sometimes, you just need a little extra somethin,' you know? So it's really nice that they do this."

The items are all donated, and the makeshift station is open for an hour each week. 66-year old Harwichport resident Isabelle Thompson, who everyone calls "Izzy," coordinates the effort. She has short, reddish hair and wears a "Carpe Diem" sweatshirt. Her smile is warm and infectious, and she's always moving. Originally from New Jersey, Izzy worked for years as a hospice nurse. Now she calls herself retired - sort of.

Izzy Thomson: "Semi-retired." (laughter)
Jack Ott
: "Yeah, she's retired, alright."

That's Jack Ott from South Chatham, one of the volunteers helping Thompson unload bags and boxes of clothing from her gray minivan.

Thompson got the idea for the weekly donations when her church began hosting the homeless as part of the Overnights of Hospitality program.

Izzy Thomson: "And from there I saw a need for clothing in season, for toiletries, for backpacks, for just a hug, for listening to somebody. And so I started coming up pretty much every week."

She relies on a word-of-mouth network of friends, and often the kindness of strangers, to help her grass-roots effort.

Izzy Thomson: "I'm quite forward actually. You know, if we have a man that's 3 or 4x, and I see somebody that size in a restaurant, I might say, "You know what, do you happen to have an extra pair of pants?" I explain who I am. I carry a letter that says I am a volunteer for all these folks, and if he has an extra pair of pants, usually it's on my doorstep within an hour."

People who show up each week represent a cross-section of Cape Cod's needy: the homeless, those who've secured housing and need furnishings, and those who've just fallen on hard times. Thomson jots down cell phone numbers and notes about who-needs-what on her ever-present clipboard.

There's a limit of three items apiece per person per week. Jack Ott says lack of storage is an ever- present problem for the homeless.

Jack Ott: "And they can't take a pair of shoes until they get rid of the ones they have on. They don't have any storage for it, so whatever they take they have to put on their back. Anything of any size, they're stuck to what they have on their body."

Kim Reilly is Director of Social Services at the Salvation Army.

Kim Reilly: "All the people that we serve really look forward to having Izzy come. She always asks us if there's any special needs, and says, you know, 'E-mail me!' (laugh) And, maybe they don't need them immediately, but they're looking for certain size clothing."

The Salvation Army cafeteria Just down the hall is filled to capacity at lunchtime. Many stop by Izzy's tables on their way out.

Izzy Thomson: "I don't judge any of these people, not any of them. Some are criminals. Some have just gotten out of jail, and will come in and ask for a sweatshirt, and they're just like everybody else."

Thomson recently began donating to the Noah Shelter next door, and she walks over to check on things. In the front office, she swings open an old metal filing cabinet.

Izzy Thomson: "Now when I bring some little toiletries and things, they might go in here, see? I've got a batch of them in my garage, so I'll refill that."

After a few minutes, she heads back to load her van with leftover items. She seems to know almost every homeless person along Winter Street.

Reporter: "What do you do for relaxation, Izzy?"
Izzy Thomson: "This." (laughter)

Thompson says she realizes that donations alone can never fully address the root causes of homelessness. But with another Cape Cod winter fast approaching, she hopes her donated backpacks, boots and jackets can help meet the immediate needs for survival.

If you'd like to volunteer, or you have items to donate, contact Izzy Thomson at 508-432-9208.

Broadcast November 9, 2006

Brian Morris reports for WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station.