"Let's say you weren't the kind of person you are... maybe you don't make friends that easily. Not that there's anything wrong with you: you're just shy. And you don't have a family or maybe they're just not around. And then something terrible happens - you get attacked, or you see someone killed or... whatever. And it messes you up and you don't have anyone to talk to and you can't just go back to work so you end up losing your job and pretty soon you find yourself out on the street. All it takes is about a week on the streets before you really do start to lose it... That's how far you are from being homeless. That's the difference between them and you."
The guy who said it was named Adam Sinykin, one of the smartest and most precocious people I've ever met. To give you an idea of how precocious, he told me that when we were in eighth grade. We were both upper-middle class suburban kids from good families in a nice neighborhood and I have no idea where or how he got his insight, but he was right: it doesn't take long on the streets to start losing your mind. The moment you start to look helpless or wanting is the moment you start to become invisible, and it doesn't take too many days watching people avert their eyes before it starts to get to you.
A few weeks ago I wrote a diary called "What to do with that old bike" about rehabbing an old bike, outfitting it with everything I'd need to survive on the road and donating it to a homeless shelter. To that I'd like to add something about what to do with your old tent, backpack, sleeping bag and whatever else you've got lying around that might help keep a person alive: put it all together like you had to depend on it to survive and then go find someone who actually will. Or drop it off at a shelter or soup kitchen - they'll find the right person to give it to.
This is one of those things where the gift as a whole is vastly greater than the sum of its parts. Whether it's from the cold of winter or the chill of thinking that nobody gives a damn, you'll be giving someone who's lost everything a second shot at it, or at least a fighting chance. You might even save their life. And like my friend said once at lunchtime in junior high, it's probably someone who's not all that different from you... just a little more shy with nobody to turn to when things got bad.
Addenda: 1.) Googling my old friend finds that he writes children's books. My guess is that they're pretty good.
2.) Googling "heard once and will never forget" comes up with an amazingly low 8 results. If you've got something you heard once and will never forget, feel free to share.