Hunched over of stack of handwritten notes, Jen Corpuz spent her Saturday morning writing uplifting messages to strangers.
“You are loved and not forgotten!” read a white index card. “Keep your face to the sun – Happy Valentines Day,” were the compassionate words written on another card.
Along with red roses and packed lunches, the notes were delivered to 1,000 of The City’s homeless residents by over 30 volunteers who combed pockets of poverty throughout San Francisco on Saturday.
“I stopped celebrating Valentine’s Day a long time ago — Maybe I’ll get back into it,” said an elderly woman who gave her name as Christine, after a volunteer handed her a rose near the Civic Center United Nations Plaza.
“There’s no time like the present,” the volunteer said. “We are here to start you off right.”
The effort was part of a monthly event, or “feed,” organized by The City Eats, a four-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to “unifying the community by eradicating hunger,” according to its website.
As The City struggles with addressing the complex issue of increased poverty on its streets, The City Eats’ young founders believe that forming human connections is the first step in counteracting homelessness.
“Strangers become friends, friends become family,” said Corpuz, a member of The City Eats, who experienced homelessness as a teenager. Now, the 33-year-old event planner is in a position to give back.
“I want to be the person that I needed when I was in that place,” she said.
The organization’s “feeds” draw dozens of volunteers each month — including families, San Francisco public school students and teachers, as well as incarcerated youth enrolled in a probation programs — largely through its social media following.
On the first Saturday of each month, they meet in a back room of the YMCA at 169 Steuart St. to prepare and package hundreds of lunches consisting of a sandwich, boxed cereal or chips, a piece of fruit and a bottle of water — before breaking off into groups to distribute the meals throughout San Francisco.
A lot of people want [the homeless] to get better and to get on their feet without actually helping them. They just expect them to do it,” said Delilah Aviles, a student at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in Portola.
The 16-year-old volunteer said she was homeless as recent as four months ago.
“You have to do something to make that change,” Aviles said. “People don’t just get better out of nowhere.”
Forming a human assembly line, the volunteers are encouraged to exchange their stories and motivations — and many have formed friendships, according to City Eats co-founder Kieem Baker.
“A lot of people that you see here, if you see them on the street, you’d walk right by them,” said the 36-year-old filmmaker. “But if you have fed [the homeless] with them, you did this with them, now you walk by that person and you talk to them.”
Baker’s ambition to serve the needy stems from his childhood in Los Angeles, during which he said that he would often accompany his father to Skid Row — an area of the city inhabited by a large homeless population — to give free haircuts to the poor.
After moving to San Francisco in 2002, Baker connected with a former coworker, Bianca Kunnuji, to launch City Eats in 2014.
“We started with [giving] kids free haircuts — there was a great turnout of barbers and we saw the power in the community,” Kunnuji said.
For some two years, Baker and Kunnuji relied on their own paychecks as well as small community donations to fund the feeds, which produced some 500 meals.
But word of the effort spread quickly, and soon tech giants such as Salesforce and Twitter jumped on board.
“Their [donations] help big time — They’ll donate up to $4,000, which will last us for a good four months,” said Baker.
The organization’s founders hope to build on its current momentum to eventually influence solutions to homelessness.
“Providing meals is a first step,” Kunnuji said. “My big picture is connecting them to rehab centers, providing [access] to jobs and a way to get back into the community so they can start getting their lives back.”
The City Eats meets on the first Saturday of the month at 169 Steuart St. Donations can be made at www.thecityeats.org/donate.