Help the homeless in Durham, see your name in dental floss

jshaffer@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2013 

Urban Ministries of Durham is offering naming rights to 169 items in its inventory of supplies, such as a $30 teddy bear.

MCKINNEY — McKinney

  • How you can help

    The Names for Change program benefiting Urban Ministries of Durham can be accessed at namesforchange.org. Donations can be made online with credit card or a PayPal account.

— In the world of charity, only the highest of high-rollers pay for naming rights, trading millions to slap their names on an opera house or museum.

But now that same prestige can be bought for a gift to a Durham homeless shelter, which will attach your name to a $2 bar of soap. For $3, you can christen your own bag of rice. Five bucks puts your moniker on a tampon.

In the fund-raising style of a professional baseball team, Urban Ministries of Durham is offering naming rights to 169 items in its inventory of supplies, such as a $4 fork or a $175 urinal.

The campaign is designed to get laughs — $15 to name an adult diaper? — and then cause forehead slaps of understanding.

“Who makes a fund-raiser around a tampon?” asked Patrice Nelson, the ministries’ executive director. “Yet I remember the woman who came in the middle of the day and was just in tears because she had soiled herself.”

The Names for Change (namesforchange.org) idea comes via McKinney, the Durham advertising agency that also created SPENT, an online game based on surviving poverty.

By photographing each of the items at Urban Ministries — a coffee cup, for instance — and explaining how each one is used — 70,000 breakfasts a year — McKinney guides potential donors through a day in the homeless life.

“It’s playful,” said Janet Northen, a partner. “It’s fun. But it takes you through your paces. It makes you laugh one minute and tear up the next.”

Funding down, users up

Providing food, clothing, shelter and social services, Urban Ministries operates on a budget of roughly $1.5 million. In the past four years, it has seen federal grant funding cut from $145,000 to $123,000 — a 15 percent drop. State contributions to its surplus food program have also fallen off, Nelson said.

In that same time, she said, families using its food pantry have doubled to 400 a month. On Tuesday night this week, the shelter stood full at 156 people.

“We’re turning away more from our food pantry,” Nelson said. “We turned away six households yesterday.”

This combination of rising need and dwindling aid calls for creativity.

As far as anyone knows, Urban Ministries is the first to try a naming rights campaign. A few days old, the campaign’s website tracks donations along a bar at the bottom of the screen, dividing the total by the cost of moving one homeless person into housing: $4,956.

By Friday afternoon, the total had reached $9,027, not enough for two people.

“You can put your name on a whole building,” said Nelson, “but it’s the everyday little pieces of stuff that lead to the end of homelessness. This talks about what it’s like not to have tissues. This talks about what it’s like not to have clean diapers for a baby.”

Your name on poster

Naming an item is largely symbolic. Some of the larger ones, such as a washing machine, might be appropriate for a plaque.

Some others: $3,500 will name the clothes closet and $5,000 will name the multi-purpose room. For $25,000, you can name the chef.

But it’s not practical to place a donor’s name on every can of corn.

Sponsor an item and Urban Ministries sends a pdf file featuring a poster with your name on it: The John Q. Donor Can of Tuna, for example. It can be printed, tweeted or posted on Facebook, which helps the idea spread.

As anybody with a few hard-knock scars knows, there’s no better gift than a roll of toilet paper if your closet is empty, and no better handout than a pillow if your bed is too hard.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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