Most people pass by the clusters of tents and makeshift cardboard shelters without a backward look, but there are others who seek out those living on the streets of San Francisco.
They come bearing gifts of everyday staples — food, water, clothes and, in this age of contagion, masks and hand sanitizer.
“They want someone to talk to them. They want to be noticed. They want to be loved just like we do,” said Rev. Brock Ford, who spends half a day each week passing out still-warm burritos from the back of his car along with day-old baked goods, toothpaste, underwear, blankets, socks, gloves and dog biscuits for the unhoused who have pets.
The missions of mercy are known as “Angel Runs,” orchestrated and funded by Urban Angels SF. The nonprofit evolved from an unsettling experience its founder and president, Nelson Barry III, had one rainy, January day five years ago as he was leaving a grocery store on Duboce Avenue where dozens of homeless individuals were living on the street.
“I saw people getting out of their tents and wringing out their clothes,” he recalled.
Barry, who has lived in the city all his life, was also struck by the scope of the need.
“There were so many of them. I’d never seen it that bad before.”
Returning to the creature comforts of his Twin Peaks apartment, Barry couldn’t stop thinking about the suffering he’d witnessed.
When he shared the memory at a men’s breakfast meeting two days later, one of the participants suggested taking up a donation. They bought a couple dozen burritos from the restaurant, and Barry, along with a couple of others, returned to Duboce Avenue to pass them out.
The food disappeared in seconds as individuals who hadn’t had a hot meal in days gratefully jumped at the chance to enjoy one.
“We just couldn’t believe how bad their situation was,” Barry said, noting that dozens didn’t receive anything that day. “We didn’t even scratch the surface.”
When some of the homeless said they also needed dry clothing, Barry promptly put a box inside the restaurant to collect donations.
As word of the effort spread by mouht and online, monetary and in-kind contributions began trickling in — $100 here, a few clothes there.
“When we started this we had no idea what would happen,” Barry said. “One thing just led to another.”
A local spiritual center, Unity San Francisco, agreed to put a clothing bin on its site, and in early 2017, older women in the congregation started heading to the outer Mission District in teams of two to distribute provisions.
And so the outreach continued, gathering momentum over the next two years until Urban Angels was giving away about 50 burritos a week, along with water, some clothes and Belgian chocolates it had bought for a song from a wholesale distributor that had a surplus of the confections.
Every other month, the organization would haul most of the wardrobe donations — roughly 4,000 articles of clothing — to “pop-up care villages,” temporary sites offering essential provisions, handwashing stations, mobile showers and other help.
Urban Angels branched out further when a city department dedicated to homeless services in August 2019 sought its help equipping homeless youngsters with school supplies.
The group bought $6,432 worth of backpacks, pens, erasers, scissors, rulers and other back-to-school necessities, delivering them to 130 students in eight shelters.
That same year Urban Angels drummed up enough donated toys for 140 kids, and the drive has adopted progressively more ambitious goals: This year’s is to make the holidays a little brighter for 356 children, Barry said.
His organization focuses on providing the basics for survival, he said, noting that cases of bottled water are among the items volunteers distribute because homeless people often suffer from dehydration.
Barry recalls the man he met last year while handing out jackets and blankets; it was a cold, rainy day, and the skinny, 60-ish looking individual not only wasn’t wearing any shoes, he was shivering so badly he stuttered when he spoke.
“I think we saved his life,” said Barry, who left the man with socks, shoes, a large comforter and a fur-lined hooded coat.
Plenty of other groups help the homeless find shelter and jobs, Barry said, but to do that they need paid staff and office space, which requires much larger budgets than his.
What’s more, unhoused people typically must go to those locations for aid, whereas Urban Angels is one of the few organizations that brings it to them, Barry said, noting that many homeless people are reluctant to leave their tents out of fear that the only belongings they have will be stolen.
When COVID-19 turned the world upside down last spring, Urban Angels lost its drivers because they were in an age group that was especially vulnerable to the virus.
But younger volunteers stepped in, distributing 6,000 hand-sewn masks, disposable gloves and hand sanitizer during the first couple of months of the pandemic.
Instead of Urban Angels having to cut back on its outreaches, the number of Angel Runs ballooned from one a week to six, seven and even eight.
“I think it was divine intervention,” Barry said. “I think because of the pandemic it woke people up. (They realized) a lot of people aren’t doing so good and … need help.”
According to Urban Angel’s annual impact report, the nonprofit delivered approximately 15,000 meals last year along with 10,000 face masks, 6,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, 9,000 bottles of water and clothes to 3,000 people.
In addition, 350 children received toys for the holiday and 240 started classes with new backpacks and other school supplies.
But needy recipients aren’t the only beneficiaries: So are the givers.
Ford used to feel slightly irritated when panhandlers approached him, and as he relunctantly produced a dollar bill he’d wonder why the person didn’t get a job. Volunteering with Urban Angels for the past year has changed his perspecitve.
“It truly taught me compassion,” said Ford, who’s made friends with the large group of Latino men who camp under the Cesar Chavez Street overpass as he’s taken the time to sit and listen to their life stories.
Barry, too, has discovered that in giving he also receives.
An attorney by profession, he spends about 40 percent of his time on Urban Angels and jokes about the amount of space in his law office that he’s given over to storing donations of all kinds.
“I’m much happier because I’m not focused on myself. I’m thinking about how I can help other people,” said Barry, who recently spent his 68th birthday distributing necessities to homeless women outside a prenatal clinic.
“I’m actually grateful to these guests providing me an opportunity to be generous, to be compassionate.”
How you can help: In addition to monetary donations to buy food, water and school supplies, Urban Angels needs masks and bulk quantities of travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer.
Drivers are also wanted to drop off supplies, and the organization is looking for a volunteer administrative assistant. Call (415) 952-0711 or email UASF@urbanangelssf.org.