USF students organize aid drive for people without housing

Roommates team-up to tackle houselessness in Tenderloin, Mission

Berlanga (left) and Pourfard (right) pose with the products they bought for the drive. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAMANTHA BERLANGA

Julian E.J. Sorapuru

Staff Writer

Most college roommates text each other about doing chores or paying rent; Sam Lopez texted her roommates about creating a grassroots aid drive for houseless people in San Francisco.

Lopez, a senior environmental studies major, said, “Especially with the pandemic, I definitely wanted to help in whatever way I could.” COVID-19 led to the closure of many shelters, churches, and charities throughout California, which traditionally sheltered houseless people. “I knew that if I could get my roommates in on it, or just people I knew to help out, we could just make a bigger impact,” said Lopez.

Others did get involved, to the tune of more than $2,000 raised, countless physical donations such as articles of clothing and food, and 20 volunteers on the day of action itself. Lopez’s two roommates, fellow USF students Samantha Berlanga and Francesca Pourfard, were also instrumental in the organizing process. 

Lopez, Berlanga, and Pourfard used their personal social media accounts to spread the word about their drive. Berlanga, a third-year media studies major, created graphics and a zine for the group to post online. “I think [social media] just resonates with our generation way more. To see things online, to have it visually appealing; that is the reality of how our generation’s dialogue works,” she said.

The trio originally posted Berlanga’s graphics, which called for donations of clothing, hygiene products, water, food, and cash, and included demographic statistics about San Francisco’s houseless population, on Aug. 6. The next day, they were shocked by the support their posts had — Lopez’s post alone garnered over 800 likes on Instagram — as well as the number of donations they had received via Venmo. “So many people were donating anything from like, $5 to $100, to more than that,” Pourfard, a senior business marketing major, said. “I think it was also this time where people were eager to help out because everyone was just kind of stuck in their homes and I think everything kind of just felt beyond people’s capacity.”

With money in hand, the women got to work planning and resourcing the aid drive. They drew on a wealth of previous organizing, volunteering, and community engagement experience to turn Lopez’s dream into a reality and create Houseless Aid SF (formerly named Homeless Aid SF). The group accepted physical donations in front of St. Ignatius Church on Aug. 15 and used the money they raised to purchase supplies for the hygiene kits they provided to homeless San Franciscans.

Included in every kit was a pair of socks, a water bottle, soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, bandages and sanitizer, a few snacks, and, the personal favorites of Berlanga and Pourfard, a pen and notebook. The pair, who are both artists, said they saw a gap in what other organizations around the city included in their care packages to the houseless community and wanted to take a more “holistic” approach to helping. “We have to be accountable for [the houseless population’s] mental health along with their physical health and their spiritual health,” Berlanga said. “A notebook and a pen is pretty powerful because they can just do whatever they want with it.” 

Pourfard echoed this statement and said, “[Houseless people] are creative people, they need to be able to get their thoughts on paper and journal and write and do poetry and draw.”

Some hygiene kits given out to those who need them included feminine hygiene products. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAMANTHA BERLANGA
What was included in every kit given out to men. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAMANTHA BERLANGA

After about a month of collecting resources, and with everything seemingly going smoothly, the trio planned a thrifting self-care trip the day prior to their aid drive. Before they could indulge themselves, however, Berlanga said she realized they had “a lot more organizing to do,” and a night that was meant to be celebratory soon turned “super hectic.” 

They painted more posters to stick on the side of the U-Haul truck they rented to transport their supplies, realized they were short on deodorant and ordered more online, and made a “menu” of what resources were available inside the U-Haul. Additionally, they organized all of their supplies into reusable tote bags and made a plan for delegating tasks to the volunteers who would meet them the next day in-person.

Among those volunteers was Azariyah Franklin, a former USF student and close friend of Berlanga. Franklin said she was inspired to tackle the issue of houselessness when, while marching in a Black Lives Matter protest with Berlanga this summer, they passed multiple unhoused people. The protesters chanted “All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter,” and Berlanga pointed out how “ironic” it was that they were protesting while those houseless people also needed help. Franklin added about the aid drive, “I think that was really important to all of us [who took part] to make a difference, even if it’s only for that one day.”

That one day came on the morning of Sept. 12, when they set out for their first stop, the Tenderloin District, which is notorious for its large houseless population. Volunteers, a few of whom Lopez, Berlanga, and Pourfard did not personally know, met them there, with some having driven in from the East Bay. The group found parking near a tented community but was careful not to pull their U-Haul up too close to the tents out of respect for that living space. 

Volunteers packing up in the Mission District after everything had been distributed. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAMANTHA BERLANGA

After two hours, they moved on to their second stop in the Mission District. Here, they gave out the rest of their supplies. The group tried to take precautionary measures in light of COVID-19, wearing facemasks at all times, using gloves and plenty of hand sanitizer, and trying to disinfect surfaces as much as possible. “We just didn’t want to put, first, the homeless population at risk because they don’t have access to the health care that we might have access to, or housing, or food, medicine, or anything like that,” said Lopez. “And we also don’t want to put the people helping us at risk.”

Despite doing their best to maintain social distance, all three women said they were still able to have meaningful, “human” interactions with the community they were serving. Berlanga, in particular, had an encounter that stuck with her in the Tenderloin: A houseless man offered to show her and a few other volunteers his prized possession, the boombox he kept in the trunk of his car. 

The man, who owned a chihuahua, explained that he loved to project music into the streets. “One thing that stuck with me is, he talked about gratitude and how no matter what he was going through he knew he would be okay and was grateful for all he had in the moment,” said Berlanga. “His courage was inspiring and there were so many people like that.” Although she could not remember his name, Berlanga said “he definitely left an unforgettable impression with me.”

When all was said and done, Lopez admitted she was “really relieved, because it was just a lot of stress.” Despite this, Lopez remained hopeful that “we made a difference, even if it’s small. I was just happy that we did something rather than just sitting here like, ‘Oh, what can I do to help?’ we actually put in the work and made it happen.”

Houseless Aid SF’s sense of initiative earned praise from the senior director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, Derick Brown. “It brings me joy to see the amazing work that our USF students have led by starting their own grassroots project during this pandemic,” he said in an email. “Community engagement prepares educated and committed people who are concerned about society at large and particularly [people concerned about] those who are poor, unprotected, and neglected.”

Lopez, Berlanga, and Pourfard all expressed that their concern for the community is not a one-time thing and, consequently, they have begun planning their next aid drive for sometime before Dec. 18. They plan to prioritize providing blankets and jackets to those living on the streets as temperatures in San Francisco drop.

With their next aid drive approaching, Berlanga reflected on the biggest lesson she learned from the first one. “[Houseless] people are just people, that’s the biggest thing. They’re not scary, they’re human. Whatever it is they’re going through, it’s not necessarily our job to go and save them … but I think it is our civic duty to be there for our community in the most basic sense, which can be just listening and extending a lending hand,” she said. “And whatever you can do, do it. Because it matters.” 

You can learn more about Houseless Aid SF on their Instagram page: @houseless_aid_sf

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