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Downtown Los Angeles has one of the largest homeless populations in the Western United States. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Coalition estimates 80,000 people sleep on the streets [of L.A.] every night. There are nearly 4,000 homeless in the Skid Row area alone. There are a number of aid organizations that offer shelter and food, but some community members are taking their own initiative to make sure no one goes hungry. From NPR West, Michelle Lanz has more.

 

In a modest, Craftsman-style duplex just west of the downtown L.A. skyline, Todd and Adriana stir a giant stockpot full of beans and rice. The kitchen is sweltering as 10 to 15 people begin to crowd into the tiny room, forming an assembly line. Some scoop the bean and rice mixture onto large tortillas, some fold burritos, and others put on the final wrap of wax paper and tin foil.

"It's kind of a science, so we like to consider ourselves at a master’s level, working on a Ph. D.," Adriana says.

That's Adriana and Jessie, the resident tortilla toasters. Once a week, the house is transformed into the headquarters of the L.A. Burrito Project.

It is a small collective of like-minded bike enthusiasts who pedal to downtown's Skid Row to feed the dense homeless population. Some members prefer to only use their first names and they insist that they aren't doing this for recognition.

But its hard not to recognize what they're doing. Since their inception in 2006, the group has only missed one week of deliveries. During the busy summer months when volunteer numbers swell, they feed up to 500 people in one trip. The group is also self-funded. Members donate what they can every week and the rest is supplemented with occasional donations from local restaurants. Todd, the main organizer, explains that it's more than just money that keeps the Burrito Project afloat.

"Everybody's pretty close here, so it's nice, you know. There’s not too many people who come through this door who I don’t consider one of my best friends, so it's nice," Todd says.

The idea came about when Todd learned about a similar group in the Mission District of San Francisco. The idea has even spread to other cities in the U.S. and it has inspired a Falafel Project based in Syria.

Tonight, artists, teachers, bike messengers and students make up the eclectic bunch of do-gooders united for a simple cause. As Todd explains,

“We’re not pushing any political ideals here, there’s no agenda ."

Dan Zaughn has participated in the Burrito Project for about a year, and says friendly human contact can be just a nourishing as a hot meal.

"The reason I come back and do this again and again, is there's really that connection and you can really feel it here more than any other place and i think thats way more important than giving out a burrito," Zaughn says.

We set off into the night, and after an easy 10 minute ride, we're in the center of Skid Row. We find a group of men sleeping on cardboard boxes under the awning of a retail store.

The exchange happens quickly and in just minutes we're back on our bikes to the next group. The homeless population used to be more concentrated in the area. But the city has been actively trying to stem the issue for years. Todd says he has noticed a definite change in the transient population in Downtown L.A. since beginning the project.

“The next few blocks we’re going on, for a while they were really, really populated. Now there's nobody on them," Todd says.

We round a corner and find a block spotted with tents and more makeshift cardboard shelters. The silence is broken only by the voices of the Burrito Project members. There is an uneasy, sour smell in the air: a mixture of garbage, standing water and body odor.

Todd says his perception of the homeless has changed, and he now realizes that Skid Row isn't just inhabited by prostitutes and drug addicts.

"Its not like there’s some cookie cutter image of what a homeless person is, there are so many families out there,” Todd says.

It takes about an hour to hand out all the burritos and waters, and then comes the difficult task of telling those still waiting that there is nothing left.

“I don’t think this is at all any solution to the homeless problem in Downtown Los Angeles, its just a chance to get a bunch of people and to see that there is another side of it," Todd says.

Whether or not the Burrito Project makes a major impact on the homeless problem as a whole, it is clear that their unwavering efforts can at least offer the less fortunate in their community a warm meal and a friendly face.

For Intern Edition, I'm Michelle Lanz.

 

© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008