On any given night, more than 200 Athens residents are without shelter, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The Backpack Project Athens, an organization led by students at the University of Georgia, is working to help those people by giving them supplies, meals and support.
The organization was founded in 2017 as the first and so far only local chapter of The Backpack Project, Inc., a nonprofit based in Atlanta focused on providing supplies to people experiencing homelessness. TBP specializes in packing and delivering backpacks of supplies including food, toiletries and clothing.
“We strive to ease the burden of homelessness in and around Athens,” said Drayton Ellis, the street outreach director for TBP. “Whether that’s just tending to the needs of the clients we work with, by delivering supplies on a weekly basis, or talking to them, just kind of a conversation.”
At first, TBP worked at a distance by distributing supplies and hosting events, often in collaboration with other local organizations.
“We mostly worked with TBP Inc. to do backpacks and coordinate events, and to reach out to other organizations around Athens,” said Volunteer Events Coordinator Sara Panico, a social work graduate student.
TBP Athens shifted focus to bringing resources directly to people experiencing homelessness after all of its original executive board, except for Panico, graduated. The new leadership was initially unsure of how to proceed with the semester, until they held a general body meeting to pack hygiene bags and distribute them to people experiencing homelessness downtown.
“There weren’t too many folks that day, we gave out maybe four or five bags and then had 45 bags we didn’t know what to do with,” said Ellis, a junior risk management and insurance major. “We knew there was an encampment by our storage unit, so we figured we’d head over and see if they were interested.”
Since then, the Athens group has used its unique relationship with the encampments to expand its initiatives for the Athens homeless population by bringing services directly to them.
“Once we had people’s trust and built relationships with them, it became a lot easier to help, because the people we knew in one encampment would show us other encampments,” said Luke Armao, TBP Athens president and junior cognitive science and philosophy double major. “We’d even have encampments we’d never heard of request that we come.”
Now, the group holds many events to benefit the homeless population, including cooking and serving 60 to 70 hot meals each Saturday and delivering water to encampments.
TBP Athens also runs a program that pairs volunteers with children who live in shelters for people experiencing homelessness. The pairs stay together to build a relationship as they do homework and activities each week.
“It’s a lot of fun and a really great experience,” Panico said.
Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization continues to support people experiencing homelessness. In order to ensure the safety of clients and volunteers, TBP Athens limits the number of volunteers working events to comply with social distancing guidelines while also having adequate resources for those in need.
TBP Athens has offered a much needed sense of community for volunteers. Sweta Nalavala, a freshman international business and marketing major, said the group has given her a way to connect and give back to the Athens community.
“Coming into college in general, just in COVID-19 was a lot, but it’s good to know that you can still help your community,” Nalavala said. “I got a ton of my friends to join The Backpack Project as volunteers. They come on, they look forward to the weekly signups and they’ll have a countdown to make sure they can sign up as soon as possible.”
The organization has been well received in the UGA and greater Athens communities.
This year, TBP Athens received a campus sustainability grant. The grant was about $5,000 and went toward encampment trash cleanups as well as placing portable toilets, trash cans and hand washing stations in the encampments, Panico said.
The Athens Trader Joe’s provides most of the food served in TBP’s meal distributions, and many individuals donate to and volunteer with the organization, Ellis said.
“We have more [support] than we could ever ask for,” Ellis said. “Incredible volunteers, a lot of volunteers that are always at events and we build relationships with, and then every week we have new volunteers that are excited to be there.”
The group has kept up with many of their former clients and even watched as some found housing and gained stability.
“Now that it’s been over a year, it’s been really cool to see people we started working with finding housing and work,” Armao said. “That’s been my favorite part of leading this organization, is you see how our relationship with our clients has evolved. I’m glad we have their trust.”