Once a year, area social service agencies attempt to collect a head count for the area’s homeless population. It is called the “point-in-time” survey and it attempts to quantify the number of homeless on a given night during a winter-season month. In 2017 the number climbed to well over 1000 individuals within the city limits of Sarasota counted on that particular evening.
Being a warm-weather state, Florida is a magnet for the homeless who do not have to fight the freezing temperatures seen in the north. But just because the weather is mild does not negate all of the hazards and challenges facing the homeless. Thankfully there are a number of agencies and individuals in the area willing to tackle this problem head on. But, as is often the case, it takes a tribe to carry people through tough times; everyday people, willing to put strangers ahead of themselves. One Sarasota resident has answered a calling to help the homeless, and she is doing it one mat at a time.
For Michele Penn, a desire to find a way to meaningfully help others was always forefront on her mind. Through chance, she was able to discover a novel way that another person was being helpful and decided to jump in. She never expected the impact she would have on her community. We had the pleasure of speaking with Michele on her endeavors to help the homeless. We found her story to be inspirational and to serve as a calling to others to look into ways to assist those who need us most.
SP: What initially inspired you to make mats for the homeless?
MP: I was initially inspired by a Facebook post. The post had a video of some elderly women at a church in Ohio making these mats. They had one table of women cutting bags, one table of women looping the bags together, one table for rolling up the bags into balls, and one table for crocheting. They then showed them giving a mat to a homeless man and he was so touched and grateful that it inspired me to do it here in Sarasota. Even though I didn’t know how to crochet, I knew I could learn. So, I did just that, and looked up how to crochet on YouTube. Not only did I like the fact the homeless would not have to sleep on hard, cold or hot, wet cement, but we would be saving the environment as well. In total we use 100 million tons of plastic every year. Some 10 percent of this plastic ends up in the oceans.
SP: How many mats have you made to date? Do you have helpers? How has the community embraced this concept of providing the homeless with a comfortable alternative to sleeping on the cold, wet ground?
MP: I have made 78 mats to date. But, I have taught many people to do the same and they themselves have made dozens of mats as well. A friend of mine, Karen Cadou, told me that Goodwill allows you to teach classes for free and people can attend the classes for free. She thought it would be a great place to introduce this to the community. She was right! I’ve taught the girl scouts, the elderly, children, etc. I teach at the Goodwill at Honore and 17th St. the first Monday of every month at 6:30 pm in the Community Room (on the side of the building). I supply the bags, the scissors and crochet hooks to use during the class. One of my friends, Angie Antonucci, introduced this concept to her 92 year old Mom, Ida Andalora, and I came to their home to teach her. She is my biggest supplier of plarn (plastic yarn). It keeps her busy and fulfilled. She loves the aspect of giving back. I also went back to my hometown in NJ and taught some women there who are making mats now as well. I’ve taught many classes in my home too. Pine View School had me teach there on Giving Tuesday to all ages. A few of the girl scouts came to my Goodwill class and loved it so much they invited me to teach at the girl scout camp! Some of the women that I have taught here have gone on to teach classes of their own. Joy Kottra took my Goodwill class and has done an amazing job with teaching others in Bradenton. That is my goal, to have as many people as I can to pay this forward and teach others too.
SP: Do you partner with any groups or coalitions to disburse your mats, or do you pass them out to people who need them as you come across them in your normal routine?
MP: I have partnered with The Salvation Army in handing out the mats. Captain Andy is my go to person. He distributes them to the “chronically homeless.” He knows the homeless that won’t or can’t come into Salvation Army for help and will be on the streets forever, so he gives the mats to them. I also always carry one in my car in case I come across a homeless person. I ask them if they have a place to sleep at night and, if they don’t, I offer them a mat. They are so touched that it was made by hand and took 15 hours to make. They can’t believe that I am giving it to them. It touches my heart to experience their sincere gratitude! There are also some places in town that feed the homeless certain days of the week and I show up there to distribute the mats as well. I have also partnered with a chiropractor, Revitalize Chiropractic on Clark Rd, who collects recycled shopping bags for me. It’s also a drop off point for anyone who wishes to donate bags. I would love it if people would also drop off PLARN that would be a BIG help and would make the process go so much faster. I can only do so much on my own
SP: Can you discuss the mechanics of making the bags? What is “plarn”?
MP: Plarn is a combination of two words – Plastic and Yarn. I didn’t make that up, I saw it on the original Facebook video. I love the word though. First, I teach people to flatten out their recycled shopping bags and fold them in half and then fold them into quarters. Then, I teach them to cut off the handles and the seams at the bottom. Then, I instruct them to cut the remaining bag into thirds. When you open those pieces, they are loops. I then teach them to connect those loops together and roll it into a ball. This ball of plarn is then used to crochet the mats just like someone would use yarn. The difference is that we use a size Q crochet hook (very big). It makes a very cushiony mat. I made short videos, less than a few minutes each, on how to do this. Your readers can go to my Bags to Beds page on Facebook to access these videos. They should go to the video section and click on “see all” and scroll through to the beginning to see the teaching videos. I have videos on how to cut the bags, how to loop them together, how to crochet, how to add balls when they’ve run out of plarn, how to add the handles, etc. It’s not a difficult process at all, just time consuming. I listen to books on tape as I crochet and it makes the time fly by. I am ALWAYS looking for people to supply me with plarn if they are not interested in crocheting themselves. People can even just cut the bags and supply me with those and that helps too. Every little bit helps.
Photos courtesy of Michele Penn on Bags to Beds FB page..