By Brian Morris
to an audio version of this
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.
: "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
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.
: "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.
"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
She relies on a word-of-mouth network of friends, and often the kindness of strangers, to help her
"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
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.
: "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.
: "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.
"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
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.
"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.
: "What do you do for relaxation, Izzy?"
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
Broadcast November 9, 2006
Brian Morris reports for WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station.