Charles Jackson, a donations aide, and Anne Ourand, program manager for non-monetary donations, work in So Others Might Eat’s clothing room on O Street NW. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

A rainbow’s worth of colored ping-pong balls spins in a pair of wire cages on a Tuesday morning at So Others Might Eat. It looks like bingo. It is the clothing room lottery.

Twice a week — Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. — clients of the D.C. charity are invited to peruse donated clothing and take what they need, up to two outfits per man, four outfits per woman. (There’s more demand for men’s clothing and fewer donated men’s clothes.)

The bingo balls are new this year, the latest effort to make the distribution of the clothing fair.

“Everybody wants to be first,” says Anne Ourand, the program manager for non-monetary donations at SOME, a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness in the District and a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.

People used to start lining up early at the O Street NW location, as early as 4 a.m. But SOME doesn’t want clients waiting in the dark and the cold. And a line for clothing can interfere with the line of people waiting for the free breakfast that SOME provides.

Anne and the SOME staff wanted a more random distribution, but a fair one, so clients wouldn’t feel they had to arrive in the wee hours. Thus the bingo balls. Each client is given a numbered ticket that corresponds to a ball. (On this day they’re also given a coupon for a free gallon of milk at Giant, the gift of a donor.)


Daryl Wright arranges numbered bingo balls that are used to help randomize SOME’s twice-weekly distribution of clothing for its clients in need. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

There are separate tickets — and a separate spinning cage — for men and for women. Clients can wait in the dining room. When their number is called, they go across the parking lot into the clothing room and start shopping.

Anne is clutching a walkie-talkie. So is Daryl Wright, director of food services at SOME, who is pulling the numbered balls and announcing the numbers. The folks in the clothing room have radios, too, so they can summon more clients as soon as there’s space. This is a complex operation.

“We get wonderful donations,” Anne says as she shows me around the back-office areas, where donations come in and are sorted.

SOME depends on gifts of gently used clothing. In the sorting room, items are bagged according to category, such as men’s pants or women’s blouses. Garments that are seasonally inappropriate — a bathing suit in December, for example — are weeded out.

There’s a separate children’s clothing room that parents can select from.

“You never know what’s going to come in,” Anne says, holding up a pair of improbably stack-heeled tennis shoes made of a silver foil fabric.

Just as important as the donation of stuff is the donation of time. SOME has a dedicated staff but volunteers are crucial. And SOME needs clothing-room volunteers especially. You can sign up for a three-hour shift of sorting, hanging and folding at someinc.volunteerhub.com.

“If we don’t keep up, it’s easy to fall behind,” Anne says.

Another room is stacked with shoe boxes, each containing a hat, gloves, scarf, underwear and hygiene items. They will be distributed closer to Christmas.

Anne’s radio crackles: “Shoe boxes in the parking lot!”

A van has pulled up, stuffed to the roof with gaily decorated shoe boxes. There are 83, assembled by Cheltenham United Methodist Church in Upper Marlboro, Md., and the Croom, Md., chapter of the Red Hat Society. They’re being unloaded as we walk across the parking lot toward the clothing room.

As we enter, a woman with her coat pulled tight walks out and shows her prize to Anne. “I got a brand-new pair of boots,” she says. “Nordstrom.”

“Nordstrom?” Anne asks. “You scored.”

It’s warm inside. Women’s clothing is straight ahead, men’s to the left. James Donohue is on the radio and coordinating with the dining room. A recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, he’s part of the Volunteer Corps, a year-long SOME service program. Charles Jackson, a SOME donations aide, and Diane Kroupa, a former federal tax court judge who volunteers nearly every day, are helping clients sort through the clothes, some to ward off winter’s chill, others to wear to a job interview.

“When guests leave, the racks will be bare,” Diane says.

You can help

When I visited the SOME clothing room, I met Lemond Simpson, who grew up in Southeast Washington and returned to the city two weeks ago after trying to make a go of it in Michigan. “SOME, I think, is marvelous,” he said. “You can shower here, you can eat for free. . . . I think SOME is a blessing. All they do is help. We need more organizations like that.”

And we need your support. To donate to SOME, visit PostHelpingHand.com and click on “Donate.” To give by mail, make a check payable to “So Others Might Eat,” and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, DC 20001.

SOME is eager for new, unwrapped toys for children under 12. If you’d like to donate, drop toys off before Dec. 14 at 71 O St. NW.

And put this in your tickler file: The clothing room has its greatest need in the fall. That’s a good time to drop off clothes.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.