Bikes, Brothers and Burritos

The urban underground movement known as The Burrito Project has taken to Santa Ana. Spearheaded by a group of friends at UC Irvine, approximately a dozen bikers have handed out burritos and water to the homeless every other Sunday since April 2009. A year after its inauguration, the group that is known as the “Burrito Brothers” won the UCI liveKIND YouTube contest.

Described as an “idea, a tool for groups of friends to become active participants in their communities,” on their MySpace website, the Burrito Project has a mission statement of being non-religious, non-political and non-fame seeking.

Even though there are individual projects across the nation from Los Angeles to Detroit to New York City, there are no headquarters, no leaders and no faces to celebrate. Recognized as the inaugural 2006 MySpace Impact Award Winner, the Burrito Project challenges everyone to start their own division with the slogan: “Enough with the dreamers, it’s time for the doers. Take action!”

The Santa Ana Burrito Project group started as the brainchild of UCI student Anthony Singhavong, who has a passion for biking, cooking and serving the homeless.

He found out about Burrito Project through some older members of his church, NewSong Irvine, and immediately liked the concept. With Santa Ana ranked first in the U.S. as the city with the highest hardship index as defined by the Nelson A. Rockefeller institute of government in 2004, an obvious location was determined.

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Around 12:30 p.m., Singhavong, eight other bikers and two drivers parked at the Santa Ana 7-Eleven on the corner of Flower and First Street. All the seats were taken out of a mini-van so that nine bikes would be crammed neatly into the back.         Another vehicle was responsible for all the actual riders. One team then headed out to Angel Park and Birch Park, while another went to the Santa Ana Civic Center downtown.

Recognized by the homeless population by their colorful bikes, the group chose the two-wheeled form of transportation for its ability to maneuver urban settings and reach out to people who may not be easily accessible by car.

“A lot of homeless people actually have bikes, so they’ll always comment on ours. It creates a natural link of conversation,” said fixed gear bike aficionado Jeffrey Hsu. “There are a lot of one-way streets because it is downtown, and the bikes make it much easier to navigate. The homeless know to look out for us on our colorful bikes now.”

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Each biker only carries five burritos and five water bottles in his bag at one time, so that a massive swarm does not devour the burritos without a chance for the project guys to interact with them. Thus, each biker will make three to four trips back to the parked bus in order to pick up new burritos. While some go back for more burritos, others stay and chat.

“We do it in hopes that we can talk to the people we give to, and really form bonds,” Singhavong said. “We don’t want to just give out the burritos and then have them immediately leave.”

A level of trust and friendship is starting to result, which is Singhavong and the crew’s main goal. When they first approach the civic center where many of the homeless congregate, some people shout out: “It’s the burrito brothers!” Burrito Project is much more about community serving and friendship than it is about charity.

Each week’s run is not just a one-day affair. The actual cooking of the bean and rice burritos take place Saturday night, and fundraising for supplies takes place throughout the week.

Unfortunately, Burrito Project has been struggling financially. Attempts to gain corporate sponsorship fell through because of a lack of established non-profit status, which means that companies cannot get tax write-offs for sponsoring the project. In addition, the group receives no funding from their church, and monetary support from fellow students is hard as well.

“[The funding side] is extremely difficult … unfortunately we are all still college students,” Singhavong said.

The group has been forced to scale back to about 70-80 burritos per run nowadays, after getting up to about 150 in their earlier days.

“The budgeting issues have allowed us to focus more on the people though,” Singhavong said.

Partly because of Burrito Project’s mission statement refusal to associate with religion, Singhavong and his fellow friends from NewSong church do not preach or hand out evangelical items.

Singhavong is serious enough about his faith and passionate enough about serving the homeless that he is considering working in non-profit in the future.

“I think it’s a case of actions speaking louder than words,” Singhavong said. “What we do already spreads God’s love. We don’t have to be overly preachy or give out Bibles per se. Most of the time they actually initiate by saying ‘God Bless’ or they ask us if we’re Christians.”

One time, a man who went by Rodney (most of the time) became especially engrossed in a conversation with Singhavong, Hsu, and fellow rider and designated chef Josh Yu. At first, the group was not sure whether they should approach him, because he was wearing six jackets on a very hot day, and undoubtedly had not showered for a long time.

“We ended up talking to him, and what he said blew me away,” Singhavong said. We found out that he was really educated about current events, because he was always reading the newspaper. It turns out he had been laid off his last job, but was now actively looking for something new.”

Unlike most of the homeless community, Rodney did not have his bags and belongings with him. He did however, show a picture of his daughter that he was still trying to support, even while homeless.

“What he had to say really hit me pretty deeply,” Singhavong said. “The fact that we were subconsciously judging him by his appearance really tells me that we can learn a lot from being here as well. After that conversation it really sunk in that this is where I need to be, and this is what I need to be doing.”

If you would like to donate to the Santa Ana burrito project, contact Anthony Singhavong at a_singhavong@yahoo.com.