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Economy

San Diego Mutual Aid Group Addresses Intersection Of Homelessness And Racial Justice

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 7,500 people live in shelters or on the streets of San Diego. Number of first-time homeless in the county nearly doubled last year. From member station KPBS, Cristina Kim reports on a mutual aid group that's stepping in to help and tries to connect the dots between homelessness and racial justice.

CRISTINA KIM, BYLINE: On a Sunday at 6 a.m., Athena Bazalaki and her boyfriend, Fernando Tabor, are already brewing a second giant carafe of coffee...

(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE DRIPPING)

KIM: ...And assembling more than 40 sandwiches.

ATHENA BAZALAKI: We just need to cheese them and bread them again.

KIM: Bazalaki is the founder of Breakfast Block, a mutual aid volunteer-run group that provides hot meals, tents, clothing and anything else people donate to San Diego's growing unsheltered population.

BAZALAKI: We worry, and we need stuff. And then people are like, bing (ph).

KIM: The number of mutual aid groups exploded during the pandemic with now more than 900 nationwide, according to the website Mutual Aid Hub.

BAZALAKI: I mean, it's for all of us 'cause the idea is if you needed help, I'm going to help you. And then if I need help, you're going to help me. And that's just how it works.

KIM: As a Black woman and mother to two Black sons, Bazalaki was on the front lines of the local racial justice protests last year following the police violence that killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

BAZALAKI: I felt like I was at my wit's end, and the only way to kind of express myself was to get out and protest in the streets.

KIM: Then in February, Bazalaki saw a video of San Diego police officers surrounding a homeless woman. One officer pointed a gun at the woman. In that moment, something clicked.

BAZALAKI: I realized that I have definitely been guilty of looking past unsheltered people, feeling guilty about what I have, feeling guilty that I'm not doing enough.

KIM: She started to see a throughline between her racial justice work and homelessness.

BAZALAKI: This time, I was like, you know what? Let's do this.

KIM: She started organizing Breakfast Block that very day.

BAZALAKI: Good job, Breakfast Block. Free food and drink. Free food and drink - 17th and Island.

KIM: By 8 a.m., Bazalaki and more than 20 volunteers are unloading two pickup trucks full of donated items. They set up amidst the constant din of the interstate overpass.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

KIM: When they arrive, there's already a line of people eager to see them. Edward Pulluaim and his 5-year-old daughter, Shaylin, are among them. They came by to pick up some essentials.

EDWARD PULLUAIM: Food, clothing, some slacks for working - some good, good things that I needed.

KIM: Pulluaim has been homeless since 2019. He says a lot of services dried up during the pandemic, so he's thankful to see Breakfast Block set up today.

PULLUAIM: We see more organizations coming out, helping again, you know, which is a blessing to me.

KIM: As the morning continues, it's clear to see that most people lining up are Black. In San Diego, Black people are around 30% of the homeless population, even though they make up less than 6% of the general population. Founder Bazalaki sees the racial disparities every time she goes out with Breakfast Block.

BAZALAKI: The fact that it's disproportionately people of color, it's like there's something there. There are things that are adding up, and it's these systems were put in place on purpose.

KIM: She points to decades of racist policies like redlining, overpolicing, pay discrimination and unequal access to credit for why Black Americans are so vulnerable to housing insecurity. That's why she sees mutual aid, like Breakfast Block, as an extension of her racial justice activism. Whether she's marching on the streets for Breonna Taylor or organizing resources for San Diego's unsheltered people, it's all interconnected.

BAZALAKI: It's not an individual issue. None of these issues are individual issues. These are community problems. And we have to be here for each other because those little things really add up.

KIM: So while a cup of coffee can seem like such a small thing, for Bazalaki and the other volunteers, it's part of a much larger movement towards justice. They don't feel like they're handing out charity; they're building solidarity.

For NPR News, I'm Cristina Kim in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.