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Homeless get backpack 'survival kits'

A nonprofit hands out 1,000 bags of food and essentials, focusing on women and children.

June 06, 2010|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Cynthia Berry, 19, is pregnant and homeless.

Due in roughly four months, Berry survives by selling incense on the Venice boardwalk.

When she heard someone was giving away backpacks full of food and other supplies at the Westminster dog park on Saturday, she was among the first to show up.

The sturdy black backpacks, which volunteers from the Giving Spirit like to call "survival kits," contain about three dozen items essential to surviving the streets in Los Angeles County, including a baseball cap, socks, soap, sunglasses, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a hairbrush, sunscreen, lotion, a first aid kit, deodorant and bottled water.

About 225 volunteers packed and distributed 350 backpacks on foot in Venice, downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, North Hollywood and Culver City on Saturday. They delivered about 650 additional backpacks to seven local homeless outreach groups.

Volunteers made a special effort to reach women and children, distributing about 15 diaper bags full of feminine napkins, sippy cups, diapers, diaper-rash cream, baby wipes, baby sun block, children's vitamins, formula and bottles. In Venice they partnered with Stand Up For Kids, a Los Angeles nonprofit that serves homeless youth.

At the dog park, Berry claimed a backpack and a free bag lunch and sat down to eat in the shade. She said life on the streets can be hard for a woman, especially one struggling with morning sickness. But she is happy about becoming a mother. She knows she is having a girl and has already picked out a name: Jessi Lynn.

Things have been better since Berry and her husband recently got an old RV to sleep in, she said, although police often rouse them from local parking lots.

Her young friends, who also claimed backpacks, said they have tried to find work, but even minimum-wage employers are looking for workers with more experience.

Miguel Pineda, 22, was laid off from his job managing a Starbucks about nine months ago and has been homeless -- or "traveling," as he says -- ever since.

"There's no work out there for a younger person," said Donovan Hage, 19.

The Giving Spirit is a nondenominational, all-volunteer, Los Angeles-based nonprofit.

Since Brentwood entrepreneur Tom Bagamane founded the group in 1999, he said, 5,000 volunteers have distributed about 11,000 bags to Los Angeles County's homeless.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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