Overflowing with Love
“I’m out here homeless with nowhere to go. It’s me and my 8-year-old son, and we need somewhere to go. I was told ya’ll help people in need, and I’m in a great need. Please help me.”
I’m sitting on a couch talking with 21-year-old Mariah Smith and her mom, Moira Askew. Moira has just played a voicemail that they received from a homeless woman a couple days ago.
“Those are calls that we get all the time,” Moira says, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. “And she’s pregnant.”
I gauge from Moira’s reaction that even after four years, it never gets easier knowing the difficulties that homeless people struggle with every day. But that hasn’t stopped the mother-daughter team from distributing more than 110,000 blankets and lunches to homeless people, through their organization, Blankets for the Homeless, which Mariah founded when she was 17.
“When I was born, I guess you could say I was homeless too,” Mariah explains. She was born on Christmas Eve and abandoned in the hospital that night. Moira fostered Mariah as an infant and adopted her two years later. “Being abandoned at birth is one of the reasons I do feel so motivated to help the homeless,” Mariah explains. “To have that love and security from my family now has inspired me to want to give back to the community and want to do as much as I can.”
As we continue our conversation inside their small duplex home in Virginia Beach, my attention drifts to several large mounds of clothing, shoes and blankets taking up the majority of space in their living room. As we move into the kitchen, I learn that it’s not used as a kitchen at all but as a station for storing and assembling non-perishable lunches in paper bags that Mariah has coined Blessing Bags.
“There’s not one room in our house that isn’t worked out of,” Mariah explains, as we wander through more and more piles of donated items.
Even their front yard is taken over by a large unit, contributed by PODS, which holds donated items. And it doesn’t even begin to stop there.
After piling into their dated minivan, with no air conditioning and no heat, we arrive at Ocean Storage on Northampton Boulevard, grab a couple handcarts and take the elevator to reach their storage unit. Once the metal door goes up, I’m faced with a mountain of garbage bags, each filled to the max with donated clothes, blankets, shoes, backpacks and toys. Mariah doesn’t hesitate to climb right in and begin sorting through the bags, so I follow suit. We load the cart with bags labeled “Backpacks” and “Jeans.”
Many of the items are designated for specific people who’ve called them and asked for clothing or shoes in a specific size—and sometimes those sizes are maternity or children’s clothing. All other items are based on season.
Among the items they pass out, tents and sleeping bags are golden, and backpacks are a hot commodity as well. “They carry everything they own with them, and there is a two very small bag limit for them to go to winter shelters,” Mariah explains. "That's hard. Think about it—everything you own is with you, and you have to choose between having shelter for just that night—and then they get released in the morning—or leaving your stuff—everything you own.”
Our next stop is Firehouse Subs to pick up lunches to distribute. Dean Arrington, who owns the Hilltop and Landstown Commons locations, strolls to the van with a cart carrying 50 subs and bottled water, a donation he makes once a month.
Just when I think there’s no possible way that another item could fit into this van, we arrive at another storage unit, The Safe Place on Baker Road. Here, we’re looking for bags and bags ... and bags of blankets. We cram those into the van as my seat becomes more and more Princess and the Pea-esque.
Both storage units, as well as another unit at AAAA Self Storage on Kempsville, have been generously loaned to Blankets for the Homeless to store their donations. Four years into it, the issue that they struggle with isn’t lack of donations—it’s needing a home base for their organization.
Their ultimate goal is to start a Blankets for the Homeless Thrift Store in order to bring in financial support, provide a regular place for drop-offs and secure jobs for the homeless.
In between making stops to pass out clothes, blankets and lunches, I chat with Moira and Mariah about some of the stigmas surrounding homelessness, such as not wanting to find a job. “They want to work,” Moira explains. “And a lot of them do work.”
As we continue our drive, the calls keep rolling in. One man requests size 32 jeans. One woman asks them to bring clothes for her 3-year-old son. At one point I’m curious about how they’re making these phone calls, and Moira explains that the government provides safe phones to some homeless people to use in case of emergency, but the phones only have a certain amount of minutes on them. “A lot of times when we call them back, it's already turned off,” Moira says.
She explains that Mariah has worked hard to change the way that thousands of people view the homeless. “There’s just something about her—in wanting to help her and being touched by her story of being homeless—it gives her an incredible opportunity to change the way people view the homeless and allow them to see the homeless through her eyes,” Moira says. “That’s an incredible gift.”
Mariah expresses that the organization has also changed their lives in every way. “It’s hard to let any moment pass by without realizing or knowing that there are so many people going through unimaginable difficulty and struggle every single day,” she says. “It’s changed the way we live and the way we think about everything. We’re truly blessed.”