WOONSOCKET – A collection of suitcases once used to transport the city’s lists of eligible voters on Election Day will now be put to a new purpose with the arrival of electronic record keeping.
Last week, employees with the Board of Canvassers and other city departments donated 18 suitcases filled with personal care supplies to the men’s shelter at Harvest Community Church. The suitcases will be offered to men who stay in the seasonal homeless shelter during the winter months.
“Most of these guys live out of plastic bags,” said Pastor Steve Bacon of Harvest Community Church. “Most of the time, it’s the clothes on his back and a trash bag.”
The donation is the result of a recent cleaning effort at the Board of Canvassers office. For years, the city used rolling luggage to transport thousands of pages of registered voter lists to precincts around the city on Election Day. Poll workers would use three-ring binders to look up residents’ information when they came to vote.
With the advent of electronic poll books, however, the paper voter lists—and the suitcases that carried them—are now obsolete. Board of Canvassers Manager Michael Narducci said the office kept only about a dozen suitcases to use as back-ups on Election Day.
According to Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, it was Cindy Johnston, the city’s deputy finance director, who had the idea to donate the suitcases to someone in need. Baldelli-Hunt said many city departments have been clearing out their excess storage areas.
“It’s just years and years of accumulation,” she said.
The suitcases contain personal care items including hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, soap and wipes. Most of the items were donated to the city by private companies throughout the pandemic for distribution to residents and employees. Baldelli-Hunt said the city was still receiving donations as recently as a month ago.
The Sanctuary shelter at Harvest Community Church is a nightly seasonal shelter for homeless men. Bacon said the shelter opened its doors for the season on Nov. 1 and is already serving about 20 men each night. Once the weather gets colder, those numbers are expected to increase.
“They’re our guys. They’re our family, basically,” he said.
For many, the ministry serves as a shelter of last resort. Bacon said drug abuse issues or shattered family ties mean some of their residents have nowhere else to go when the weather gets cold. About 15 percent of the men return from year to year, he said.
Bacon plans to distribute the suitcases around Christmas. Residents will be able to store their suitcases at the shelter, he said, giving them a place to keep their belongings when the shelter closes for daytime hours.
“It means a lot to them. Sometimes, this is the only gift they get,” he said. “You take these hardened guys—I’ve seen guys crying over this.”
Bacon added the shelter is always in need of 2-in-1 shampoo and body wash, disposable razors, men’s underwear, high-efficiency laundry detergent, coffee creamer and sugar for anyone looking to make a donation around the Christmas season.
As for the Board of Canvassers office, Narducci said he and Elections Clerk Gianna Savastano are relieved to reclaim the space taken up by the suitcases and an outdated filing system. The two spent the past several months clearing equipment out of the office, a process that began after the 2020 election.
“It’s been a team effort. (The Department of Works) helped me out with a massive project,” Narducci said.