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Inland homeless get hygiene items, snacks — and reminder that ‘somebody cares’ – Press Enterprise


Inland Empire residents are using their time — during the coronavirus pandemic and busy election season — to spread a little kindness to the homeless.

“Even pre-pandemic, the homeless are often overlooked. Now everyone is focused on trying to keep themselves safe and healthy. This is when (the homeless) need even more help,” said Riverside resident Zack LaGuardia, founder of the group Kits With Kindness, which gives donated goods — including masks — in bags to homeless throughout the Inland area.

More than 2,000 people are living in tents, on sidewalks and under bridges in Riverside County, according to the latest count from early 2020, before the pandemic hit. That number has expectedly climbed. In San Bernardino County, officials estimated more than 3,000 homeless individuals — a growing population — in January.

Agencies, organizations and individuals are stepping in to help.

LaGuardia, who works as director of ticketing and sales at California Baptist University, credits his love of service to his Christian family upbringing and Jesuit education at Loyola Marymount University. The idea for Kits With Kindness hatched during the first weeks of the pandemic after he visited a 99 Cents Only store. He was buying 50 bottles of sunscreen to give to homeless people before the summer months.

“I’m going down every aisle, I get the sunscreen, but then I see sanitizer. I thought, well, that’s hard to find right now; let’s pile that in. And then I see soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, packs of fruit snacks,” LaGuardia said. “Before I knew it, I had a cart just full of all these hygiene and food products, and I ended up spending a couple hundred bucks. I put together 50 kits to give away, with handwritten notes of encouragement.”

Days later, LaGuardia saw one of his kits — filled with sunscreen, sanitizer, water, hygiene products and snacks — being used by a homeless man on the side of the 91 Freeway in Riverside. He realized then that this small gesture could become a bigger project.

In April, LaGuardia started reaching out on social media and by word of mouth and started a group of volunteers on Facebook. Almost overnight, Kits With Kindness grew to hundreds of members who donate supplies and time.

“Through this journey, I’ve had so many people say they’ve always wanted to do something like this, but didn’t know how to start or get involved,” he said. “People want to make a difference, sometimes they just don’t know how.”

The process starts with getting supplies for the kits, which LaGuardia and other volunteers buy from stores or factories using donations. From feminine products to face masks, goods are collected at the beginning of each month and inventoried at LaGuardia’s Riverside home. About 20 volunteers from across the Inland Empire safely gather to pack everything together, assembly-line style, into about 200 kits per month.

“We’ve got kids as young as 5 years old, adults 70 and older,” he said, adding that several volunteers were once homeless.

Volunteers take bags to homeless encampments in their community. In Riverside, LaGuardia said, these include downtown, Massachusetts Avenue, Fairmount Park and the Santa Ana River bottom.

Cal Baptist student Geby Rawung coordinates face mask donations from corporations and mask-makers. She’s collected enough to last until the end of the year.

“There are so many reasons for someone to become homeless, and there are a multitude of solutions in order to solve a problem,” said Rawung, 20. As a community, we can come together and really help those in need, especially in these times.”

After its early success, Kits With Kindness began putting together female-only packs filled with feminine products, such as tampons, liners and nail files.

The group also started Pet Kits With Kindness, which collects dog and cat food, toys and accessories to give to the companions of those they encounter on the street.

“A lot of people turn to their animals for emotional support and mental health,” volunteer Daniella Arauz said. “Helping the homeless take care of their pets helps them in return.”

Debra Ames, 65, says she developed a relationship with a homeless family that started living in its car during the pandemic.

“I feel very blessed that I haven’t been affected (by the pandemic),” the Riverside resident said. “It’s the least I can do to help somebody else.”

Every kit includes a pamphlet with contacts and resources from Riverside County’s Office of Homeless Solutions, with a list of shelters and services—including where to find showers and how to report substance abuse.

Along with writing a heartfelt note, LaGuardia encourages volunteers to have conversations with the homeless men and women they meet.

“A lot of times these people just want someone to talk to, someone to know their name … everyone has the right to kindness, compassion and dignity,” he said. “The goal is to remind them that somebody cares.”

Since launching in April, the group has raised more than $4,000, and distributed well over 1,000 kits in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. Its Facebook group has over 400 members.

Kits With Kindness became a nonprofit group in October and has a goal of also serving Los Angeles’ massive homeless population.

Volunteers are raising money for blankets, hats and mittens to prepare for the colder months. It’s the perfect time for people looking for ways to give back, especially during the holidays, LaGuardia said.

“The plan is to keep this going way beyond the pandemic. These people will need help during COVID, and they’ll need help after,” he said. “The reality is, no one is alone. Everyone deserves kindness.”


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