by Kate Dugger
Despite all our technological leaps and social progress, we are a long way off from the Gene Rodenberry–esque utopia where poverty, and thus homelessness, has been eliminated. The number of Americans who will be without a safe place to sleep tonight will be around 633,782. Veterans make up 62,000, or 13 percent of the total homeless.
Homelessness is a problem that can’t be solved overnight, although there are plans and proposals a-plenty. In the meantime, more practical help is being provided in the form sleeping shelters, homeless kitchens and more recently plastic sleeping mats made from recycled grocery bags. Anyone can make these mats. It just takes a little practice.
Esther Mowen of Paris, Tennessee began making these mats last spring. In a Ladies Auxiliary magazine delivered to her door by mistake, she came across an article describing how to crochet plastic grocery bags into sleeping mats. “I’m a preacher’s kid; I absolutely believe that magazine came to me for a reason.”
She tried her hand at making one. Then two. Since she started, she has completed eight but has a few in various stages of completion. It takes between 500-700 bags to make one mat about 2.5 feet wide and about 6 feet long.
These mats are not ideal, of course, but they do provide a measure of protection from the ground at night, can be used as a windbreak, and are lightweight, therefore portable. Because of the material they are made from, they repel insects, are easy to clean and are water resistant. One mat will keep several hundred plastic bags out of landfills, parks and water sources.
Mowen carries her mats in progress with her most places. She may have a few minutes here and there to work on them. She has taken them into stores with her to show employees and shoppers alike. “When I tell people what I do with these bags they seem a little confused. That’s when I show them one.” Surprise at how soft the mats are is usually the first response. Her brother-in-law tested one during a camping trip. “It’s no mattress,” He said, “but it’s certainly better than the ground.”
Mowen has inspired her community to get involved. Members of Christ Lutheran Church in Paris have been supportive of Mowen’s mission as well as local senior centers and nursing homes. They have been helping by providing, preparing and crocheting the bags. The number of donated bags has been overwhelming. She has had to stop accepting them for the time being “It was wall to wall plastic!” As thankful as she was for the bags, storage space is limited.
The W.G Rhea Public Library in Paris has helped by displaying some of the mats and how they are made. The library hosts regular planning and crocheting meetings. The next one will be December 6, 2016, at 6 P.M. Anyone interested is encouraged to attend the meeting. Demonstrations and step-by-step instruction will be given.
The local Veterans Administration is on board with the project. They are looking at ways to get mats in the hands of those who need them. The Set Free Ministries has also become an outlet for the mats. They are making sure they are to getting local homeless individuals. One of Mowen’s mats went to Huntsville, Alabama to a homeless veteran. Another went all the way to Washington D.C to a homeless woman who befriended one of Mowen’s church members.
Plastic bag mats are being made all over the world and are finding their way to people in
need all over. There are Facebook groups, Youtube videos, and websites showing where people can come together to learn, share and discuss this undertaking. There is a similar mat making group located in Union City, Tennessee that operates out of Second Baptist Church. They received national coverage in September 2016. For anyone looking to get involved, you may contact Faith Lutheran Church at 731-364-6620 or Set Free Ministries at 731-407-4611.