Housing / 2013

Students Working Together to Combat Homelessness and Reduce Food Waste on Campus

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Swipes for the Homeless

In September 2009, “Swipes for the Homeless” was established as an official university student organization at UCLA in order to help alleviate the destitution of the neighboring homeless community, specifically the growing homeless student population. Having seen on-campus students collect hot meals for the needy in past years, UCLA students Thach Nguyen and Bryan Pezeshki came up with a brilliant idea. They set out to create a partnership between the multiple campus departments to fully institutionalize a program that would allow the impact and influence of their idea to grow to its full potential. What exactly was this idea? On-campus residents with meal plans that allow them to roll over unused meals from week to week, tend to accrue many unused meals, or “swipes”, by the end of each academic quarter. At the end of the quarter, these students can donate their unused meal swipes, which would otherwise go to waste, to Swipes for the Homeless. These swipes are then transferred into non-perishable goods and then taken to homeless shelters, homeless living on the streets, and homeless and hungry students on campus. In addition, many other sub-projects target wasted food in the residential dining halls, fast-food eateries on campus, and community businesses in order to salvage that food for those less fortunate on a daily basis. The organization has collected over 30,000 meals to date, with a record of 7,421 meals this past university quarter The simplicity and effectiveness of this idea quickly led to its expansion onto numerous college campuses worldwide, amongst those being USC, UC Berkeley and University of Paris in France. In April of 2012, after a nationwide search and vetting of thousands of applicants, President Obama recognized our organization as one of five “Champions of Change,” personally inviting our group to the White House to honor us for our impact on the community. “Swipes” has since become a state-certified 501(c)3 non- profit organization with the aim of spreading its impact on to every campus in the world. Although our main indicator would be “housing,” Swipes for the Homeless affects several other indicators on many different levels. For example, our dual mission is to tangibly and tactically partner with college campuses to alleviate hunger while raising young people’s awareness of homelessness and hunger through education and outreach. Through this we hope to facilitate the spirit of giving and volunteerism, a crucial component of social connectedness. Swipes for the Homeless is also environmentally-focused because it helps University campuses reduce their food waste. We understand that all indicators and social issues are inter-connected, and that improving one area would correlate with an improvement in another indicator.

What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Since its humble beginnings, Swipes for the Homeless has donated over 35,000 pounds of food just in Los Angeles and thousands of additional meals around the nation. In fact, we have recorded a whopping number of 57,268 pounds of food donated as of January 2013! All of this couldn’t have been done without our dedicated university chapters. We are continuing to spread our mission to university campuses, and additional students from over 30 universities have recently reached out to us to establish a chapter on their perspective campuses. Swipes for the Homeless has been featured in many publications and media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, MTV, GOOD Magazine, Forbes, UCLA Magazine, and many others. Our biggest (and most exciting) achievement to date was when our organization was recognized by President Barack Obama as a Campus Champion of Change in 2011. The Champions of Change challenge was launched by the White House to honor five young leaders for outstanding leadership on their college campuses. After reviewing a record number of entries, fifteen Challenge finalists were announced and the public chose the top five projects they think best embody the President’s goal to win the future. Swipes for the Homeless was voted as one of the top five! Our members were honored with the opportunity to travel to the White House and personally meet Obama for a press conference with the other winners. In 2012, Swipes for the Homeless was also recognized as Most Influential College Organization at the 2012 Stay Classy Awards, the largest philanthropic recognition ceremony in America. From these various recognitions, we have been blessed with the opportunity to bring this important cause to further light on the national media scale, and would like to thank all of our supporters who have been with us every step of the way.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Swipes for the Homeless has engaged with several organizations and companies that span across a wide range of industries. For example, we have conducted talks with companies such as TowelSafe (a cutting-edge company with a program that allows people to donate one pocketed towel with a toiletry kit to a local homeless individual) and KNOclothing (a socially-minded business that donates an article of clothing to those in need for every purchase). Our talks have focused on partnership possibilities and ways that we can support each other. Recently, Swipes for the Homeless collaborated with Ebay’s Giving Works program. Through this program,customers can donate to a non-profit or charity of their choice, simply by buying or selling an item.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

The meaning of success for us is multi-faceted. If the past three years have served as any evidence, we anticipate exponential growth and impact. From a pragmatic standpoint, we want to streamline our relationships with our campus chapters by providing more communication, training, and development. Our executive team has spent last summer redefining our vision for the organization and made plans to establish stronger ties with our campus communities. Short-term strategies include institutionalizing quarterly video conferences and developing grant-writing/campus development kits; our long-term strategies include providing financial and web-based support for our individual chapters. These new tools aim to elevate resources available at-hand for our campus leaders. From a high-level vision, our hope and goal is to maximize the impact of our organization by being more intentional about our programming initiatives.

We, of course, want to maintain our growth and expansion beyond the 12 campuses we currently exist in. But rather than simply focusing on the quantity of food in which collect, we want to establish partnerships with organizations and professionals from the medical field who will work with us to identify the most nourishing and nutritious foods. We hope to use our donated foods to not only alleviate hunger but to find opportunities to address deep malnutrition and the issues associated with it. Furthermore, as our organization continues to grow and our vision mature, we want to look at targeted demographics with special needs rather than just adopting a blind, homogenous view of the homeless population. Special communities, such as LGBT youth, experience unique circumstances that make them the most at-risk population and our goal is to develop programming that will address these issues. It’s an incredibly exciting time in the history of organization as we are transforming our structure both internally and externally. As Swipes for the Homeless continues to grow, we are rethinking our strategy by both broadening our scope and the campuses we are able to reach, as well as refining our approach to maximize the quality of our impact.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

According to a 2012 article in the Huffington Post, “more than 51,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, from Antelope Valley to the South Bay, with double-digit percentage increases in the number of families, seniors and veterans over last year.” The LA2050 website quotes that “Los Angeles is considered the ‘homeless capital of the country.’” Swipes for the Homeless is especially prominent and beneficial in Los Angeles because of two main reasons. Firstly, the statistics tell all – there is a strong need for support and services for the local homeless population. With such a large homeless population and shelters lacking in resources, every act of giving and every helping hand counts. We hope that Swipes for the Homeless has helped – and will continue to – alleviate the strain on homeless shelters and missions in Los Angeles. In addition, Swipes for the Homeless has two very strong chapters that are based in Los Angeles – UCLA and USC. UCLA is our oldest and most established chapter, with a fully self-sufficient and independent team that runs smoothly every quarter. USC is a relatively newer chapter, but during their first donation drive in Fall 2012 the Trojans managed to collect 2,300 pounds of food! Despite the friendly rivalry between both schools, here is a wonderful example where students from rival universities can work together for a greater cause. Combined, our UCLA and USC chapters prove to be a strong force that is united in its mission to fight homelessness in Los Angeles and its surrounding areas.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Our dual mission is to tangibly and tactically partner with college campuses to alleviate hunger while raising young people’s awareness of homelessness and hunger through education and outreach. Because of our commitment to fighting homelessness, our vision for the year 2050 would be a large national decrease in (if not a complete eradication of) homelessness, especially amongst the student population. We hope that through our advocacy and outreach on this issue, we can influence and mobilize youth for generations to come. In addition, we would also like to see a reduction in food waste across campus dining halls on a national level. The future of the environment is already in jeopardy, and it is frightening to think what our cities will look like in the year 2050 if we don’t take action to reduce waste and implement sustainable measures now. Ultimately, we want to advocate for the idea that each individual person, each small act of kindness or helping hand can make a difference in the lives of others.