Weekly Lunches for Unhoused Residents Aim to Fight More than Hunger at Garfield Park

Volunteers are making a difference for our unhoused neighbors by offering hot meals and building relationships every Monday

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | Meals provided by a group of local activists ensure that our unhoused neighbors have a chance to sit down for a hot meal, hang out, and mingle with friends in Garfield Park every Monday

Amidst the complexities surrounding a profoundly multi-layered issue like homelessness, at times all it takes is a hot meal to make someone’s day. Conversely, for that same systemic problem engendered by decades of stigmatization, the solution of course isn’t that simple. However, that doesn’t — nor should it — stop anyone from doing what they can to help.

That’s what a small group of compassionate activists have been doing on a weekly basis at Garfield Park in South Pasadena. Anne Bagasao and Fahren James — who are cofounders and members of the South Pasadena Tenants Union and Black Lives Matter South Pasadena respectively — conceived the idea in early January, after successfully hosting large-scale food & donation drives last year during the holidays. “When I saw how grateful and how happy the folks that we were serving (were), it just occurred to me that I could do more,” Bagasao tells the South Pasadenan News. She reflects that when she started, it was worth it “to cook a hot meal for several of the guys or make sandwiches and take (it) to them once a week.” It wasn’t just enough, she says, to show up on Thanksgiving and Christmas and tell them “you’re own your own for another 12 months.” Bagasao then conferred with local unhoused residents to agree on Mondays to meet at the park.

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | Anne Bagasao (L) distributing meals and care packages to unhoused neighbors with ARC member Phung Huynh during the holidays
PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | Black Lives Matter South Pasadena (BLMSP) cofounder, Fahren James gives meals and other amenities donated by the community in the Arroyo Seco on Thanksgiving Day

Alternating hosts from various organizations (or from anyone willing to sign up for the task) who work in coalition with each other and helmed by BLM So Pas, volunteers set up a picnic-like feast — sometimes fried chicken with mashed potatoes, sometimes pho noodle soup — so neighbors facing homelessness can sit down and enjoy a hearty lunch with friends while also acting as a weekly check-in.

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“These are people that are unhoused who are very much a part of our community,” Helen Tran tells the South Pasadenan. She was joined by Victoria Patterson, a fellow resident also active within local social advocacy groups, as they hosted on a chilly winter’s day in February.

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | Helen Tran is one of the volunteers who serve as hosts for the weekly drives/lunches at Garfield Park

Also present was Marina Ella Rodriguez, a housing navigator for Union Station Homeless Services who oversees both South Pasadena and Arcadia. “I do outreach in those two cities, case management & referrals, and housing plans for individuals who are experiencing homelessness,” Rodriguez explained. Performing outreach weekly through conduits like Shower of Hope and programs at Holy Family Church, her relationship with many of the citizens in attendance preceded the lunches in the park.

Establishing trust is essential and Rodriguez hopes to build a rapport and continue to fortify those relationships, her end goal being getting them closer to housing. Gathering vital information from those in attendance, she expressed gratitude to the organizers, “I think it really helps individuals who are experiencing homelessness feel like a part of the community, it makes them feel welcome and accepted… that makes a huge change in terms of their motivation.”

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | Marina Ella Rodriguez, a housing navigator for Union Station Homeless Services who oversees both South Pasadena and Arcadia, checks in with those she has developed relationships

Other than just providing meals, the group works to assemble care packages with non-perishable snacks, masks, hand sanitizer, socks and other essentials. Establishments like Fiore Market Cafe and Harvest Food Bank have been key as well, the latter of which Bagasao credits with supplying many of the staples required to make the meals, from coffee and bread to farm-to-table produce.

When it comes to allocating resources, the group hopes that local government officials will take notice. “I think it would be really helpful for the City to think more in a systems-wide level about providing housing and the solutions that can actually help people with homelessness,” implores Tran. Currently the South Pasadena Police Department heads many of the City’s outreach programs, a relationship that organizations like CareFirst South Pasadena feel may jeopardize trust, especially with those who wish to keep a low profile. Other unhoused individuals may have had previous negative interaction with law enforcement, as many policies and laws (South Pasadena and beyond) can be considered as unjustly discriminatory against them, even if unintentionally.

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | Oftentimes, homeless residents must keep their belongings with them at all times, fearing unattended items may be stolen

For an ever-growing population and decreasingly accessible housing, the line between having a roof over one’s head or not is becoming incredibly thin, Bagasao admitting that she herself “has nightmares about it.” For some perspective, over 35 million Americans in the United States experienced food insecurity in 2019, a number that has exponentially grown — almost double — since the pandemic hit, according to the USDA and researchers at Northwestern University.

Additionally, it’s projected that homelessness in LA county will increase by 84% in the next couple of years. “We need to do something about this now collectively, as a society, we need to talk (to) the government to do more they have. We’re the fifth largest economy in the world. There’s no reason why people are living on the streets or going hungry in California.”

According to the last Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count in January 2020, South Pasadena tallied 10 unhoused residents — down from the 12 accounted for in 2019 and 15 in 2018. However, this may be a fraction of a true count for civilians without a home when summating several factors, one being the desire to keep a low profile, as previously mentioned. Another is the nomadic nature of many unhoused individuals; in order to take full advantage of services provided by shelters, churches, and nonprofits, they must travel between several cities, following a circuit of already limited benefits further diminished by the pandemic.

Hoping to mobilize more volunteers, the group says that they can always use extra hands, noting that things like the lunches in the park is an opportunity open to everyone. Circulating and coordinating the operation has relied almost entirely on the use of social media platforms like Instagram and-word-of-mouth, with some success but not always enough.

Those interested in contributing and/or volunteering can visit the Black Lives Matter South Pasadena Instagram @blacklivesmattersouthpasadena page to find the sign-up link in their bio or reach out to Bagasao via Instagram @shesjustanne.

“I think we have a moral obligation to make sure that people have what they need, basic human needs… to me (that’s) education, health care, food, and housing. So just like I would say: like fighting for a woman’s right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, I’m gonna fight for my fellow Americans to have a home,” concluded Bagasao.

The work ostensibly doesn’t end with providing meals and basic amenities. Many activist organizations encourage citizens and City officials alike to participate in the many webinars, workshops, volunteer opportunities, petitions, and more put on by numerous South Pasadena social advocacy groups in order to help effect change.