Alice Wilse, left, gets help finishing off her mat from Norma Brewster. Wilse is functionally blind but is still able to crochet the mats made of plastic bags. She has completed seven of them.

Those pesky plastic grocery bags are all over the place. We see them blowing around on the street.

We don’t want to use them, but even if we have cloth bags, we almost never remember them.

The recycling plants don’t want them. They can shut down the machinery, so we can’t put them in curbside recycling.

What if our plastic bags could be used to help the homeless? We might feel better about having forgotten our cloth grocery bags so often.

At The Fountains at La Cholla, there is such a group. It was founded by the late Dwaine Greer, who was a professor of art education at the University of Arizona, and a resident at the retirement community before his death.

This group takes those bags, flattens them, and cuts them into strips. They then join the strips to crochet sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness.

Jean Brown chats with her friends as she prepares to work on her mat.

The mats are lightweight and easily carried. They can be hosed off when dirty and dry quickly. They keep the sleeper off the hard ground just a bit, and while it isn’t often a problem in Tucson, if the ground is damp, the mats help keep the sleeper dry.

The crocheting team has members who don’t crochet, but they help in other ways. It’s a well-oiled machine made up of friends who work on their own time and then come together for an hour on Saturdays to work together.

Judellen Thornton takes the bags and cuts them into strips.

Jennie Gardner, Betty Schabel and Joyce Willey join the strips into longer strings and roll them into balls of “yarn.” They make each ball a single color.

Then Norma Brewster, Margaret Dorner, Jean Brown, Alice Wilse and others go to work. Wilse is functionally blind but has still managed to crochet seven mats since she joined the group.

It takes a lot of bags to make a sleeping mat at least six feet long and three to four feet wide. They use large crochet hooks to work with this unusual thread.

Using different colors of plastic bags makes it possible to design appealing mats. If your newspaper comes in a colored plastic bag, these people want you to save it for them. If you’re out shopping and get a plastic bag that is a different color than the norm, they want it.

Sleeping mats, made of used plastic bags by a group at a Tucson retirement community, will be handed out via a homeless shelter.

The project has become intergenerational. When Sydney Kurpiewski and Claire Sugiyama, a pair of Girl Scouts, asked if they could sell cookies at The Fountains, not only did they make a killing in the cookie business, they learned that this project could use their help. They spent some time with the team flattening bags and smoothing them out.

The girls suggested that some mats be donated to the Veterans Administration for homeless veterans, which will be done.

Stone estimates at least 500 mats have been donated so far to shelters and organizations that help the homeless, but there will be more. This group has no intention of stopping now.

Contact Johanna Eubank at

Johanna Eubank is a digital producer for the Arizona Daily Star and She has been with the Star in various capacities since 1991.