The scene at the Houston Convention Center

by Ted on September 3, 2005

I spent the afternoon at the Houston Convention Center. According to people I spoke to, they were directing volunteers away from the Astrodome to the Convention Center. As I left, the Convention Center had a lot of volunteers, but it could use them.

Most of the volunteers were in the large southernmost section of the Convention Center. From where I was, I could see a vast room to the north full of what looked like air mattresses, with sheets and pillows. I never got a good look, but refugees seemed to be trickling into the room in small numbers. The vast majority of beds seemed to be untouched as of the afternoon. Every once in a while, a refugee would emerge from that room to a standing ovation from volunteers who were waiting for them. I suspect that there would be concerted busing to the Convention Center late in the day.

There was an orientation session available, but the lines for it were very long. If I understand correctly, people who went through orientation might be sent on a few different assignments, while people who skipped it would stay and move donations or sort clothes. The closest organizers encouraged us to skip it.

Dominating this room were thousands, maybe tens of thousands of cubic yards of donated clothing in garbage bags. There was a wall of unsorted bagged clothing down the middle of the room, about seven feet tall, ten feet wide, and maybe two hundred feet long. All around the room were more piles of sorted and folded clothes.

A large contingent of volunteers were passing bags out of trucks down a human chain, and adding bags to that wall. More people were grabbing bags off of the pile, sorting and folding the clothes, and moving them into makeshift areas indicated by handwritten signs taped to the floor or wall. (That’s what I did.) There were probably ten different sorting systems that someone or other had started somewhere. Still more volunteers were picking up the piles of clothes as they accumulated and moving them into the pre-sorted “shopping areas”, where hurricane victims would come to pick out clothes. The situation was a sort of benign chaos. There was no visible command, but the tasks were simple enough that we didn’t really need it.

Lining the back wall were other goods- bottled water, food, toys, blankets and toiletries. Another group of volunteers passed down boxes from trucks as they arrived into these piles. To my naiive eye, it looked like there was a decent amount of water, a decent amount of food, quite a few toys, and probably not enough toiletries to comfortably go around for long.

The water, air conditioning and bathrooms are working just fine, and the floor is clean, so the place was perfectly comfortable.

Judging by their T-shirts, a sizeable number of volunteers came from church groups and local colleges. Good for them. Reliant Energy and Shell both had groups of T-shirted volunteers as well. There were 30-40 Nation of Islam members who came in together, got a briefing, and then seemed to vanish. I don’t know what they were doing. The crowd seemed to be a not-bad cross-section of Houston, although- and this is just my previously-primed impression- it did seem that African-Americans turned out in disproportionate numbers. Again, good for them.

It didn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, I would get a bag full of clothing with enormous stains or rips. Organizers were saying “If you wouldn’t let your child wear it, throw it out.” It reminded me of this old post– “They’re people, not fucking raccoons.” It wouldn’t bother me as much if the trash didn’t come together in the same bag, obviously from the same donor. I’m thinking of a bag that contained numerous, deeply stained shirts and pants, culminating in a pair of panties that had been ripped in half. That’s not charity, that’s garbage disposal.

The wall of bagged, unsorted clothing kept on growing while I was there. It was pretty obvious that we needed more volunteers sorting clothes, and fewer in the human chain/ applause corps. The problem, as I see it, is that sorting was tiring, time-consuming, and hard on the back. There was an awful lot of bending over involved in sorting, folding and stacking clothes without tables. Passing bags down a line, or applauding, didn’t seem to be as much of a strain. People are not idiots, and will gravitate away from volunteer jobs that hurt. Similarly, people will gravitate toward making donations which they don’t value as highly, especially unwanted clothing. It isn’t a matter of “stinginess” or anything, it’s just human nature. It isn’t hard to see why the Red Cross has been asking for money instead of in-kind donations. There’s no invisible hand in private charity.

It wasn’t a particularly emotional experience. I didn’t see any crying, or hear a word spoken in anger. I’m not sure whether I spoke to any refugees or not. I can’t tell you that the experience was rewarding, exactly. But I’ve been letting my anger build up, and it’s been a poison. Stories like this are hard to read. Having a constructive outlet was better than a proverbial stick in the eye.



ogged 09.04.05 at 12:01 am

On behalf of all the people stuck far away, wishing we could do more than give money, thanks for going, Ted.


bad Jim 09.04.05 at 1:55 am

Yeah. Good for you, Ted. And thanks for the story. I think I’d rather stack folding chairs, my usual charitable exercise.

What happens to the residents next? They won’t be able to return for months, if ever. Are they expected to turn into Texans?


gzombie 09.04.05 at 7:50 am

Thanks for the post, Ted. If more toiletries are needed at the Astrodome, how about going around to local stores like Walmart or Target and just asking them to donate boxes of deodorant, soap, shampoo, toilet paper, etc?

Is there anything, in addition to donating money, that people far away from Houston can do to help?


John Isbell 09.04.05 at 8:37 am

Thakns for going, Ted. Working at a homeless shelter you always get the crap people try to fob off on you, and all you can do is roll your eyes.


Nancy Lebovitz 09.04.05 at 11:57 am

It anybody working on getting tables for you guys? A convention center should have a big stash of tables.


Another Damned Medievalist 09.04.05 at 1:10 pm

I did hear on NPR this morning that the Governor of Texas said they didn’t have any more room for refugees. I hope I misheard that.


Doug 09.04.05 at 4:40 pm

Folks are registering their kids for school wherever they are. Relatives of mine in Baton Rouge had gotten little interest in the house they were selling; there are now three serious, no-haggle offers on their table. A large number of people are inevitably not going back, whether they admit it to themselves now or not. It’s an open question whether Baton Rouge will remain the most populous city in Louisiana, which it became this week. Relatives in Houston say the metro area has ca. 225,000 refugees from New Orleans. Particularly the people who were living paycheck-to-paycheck will likely stay wherever the next paycheck comes from. If that turns them into Texans, bad jim, that’s what will happen.


Desirea 09.05.05 at 11:43 am

From California: It’s good to hear there are people who do go where they can help. I’m glad that Texas has such a big heart.. with room for the people of New Orleans.


VIOLET 09.07.05 at 11:49 am


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