A Black-Led Mutual Aid Group Fights Homelessness, Injustice Through ‘Solidarity, Not Charity’
The dawn had barely broken Sunday morning and Athena Bazalaki was already awake and brewing her second 24-cup carafe of hot coffee. Her boyfriend, Fernando Tabor, was at her side helping her assemble over 40 sandwiches.
Within two hours, Bazalaki, along with several other volunteers, would load up two pickup trucks full of food, clothing, water and other supplies and head to the intersection of 17th Street and Island Avenue.
They’ll spend the rest of the morning providing these needed supplies to some of San Diego’s more than 7,000 people experiencing homelessness.
Bazalaki is the founder of Breakfast Block, a mutual aid program staffed by upwards of 60 volunteers, and one of a growing number of aid groups that have sprung up throughout San Diego County during the pandemic to fill in where social services have fallen short.
"The idea is if you need help, I'm going to help you," she said. "And then if I need help, you're going to help me."
A year ago, Bazalaki didn't even know what a mutual aid organization was and certainly didn't think she'd soon be running one. But then, in January, she saw a video showing a group of San Diego Police Department officers surrounding a homeless woman. One of them had a gun.
“Something about seeing her really clicked, I realized that I have definitely been guilty of looking past unsheltered people,” she recalled. “But this time I was like, ‘you know what, let’s do this.’ Let’s figure something out.”
Bazalaki had lost her job as a gym manager amid the pandemic shutdown, so she poured her energy into Breakfast Block.
She started off small by just calling a few friends and posting a call out on social media for people to donate leftover food, coats, or whatever they could give. Now, almost a half a year in, the group has grown significantly.
It’s become a permanent fixture of Bazalaki’s life even now that she has to balance a new job working at Planned Parenthood.
A line of unsheltered people was waiting when Bazalaki, her boyfriend and several volunteers arrived at 17th and Island just before 8 a.m.
Among them was Terry Young, a tall Black man wearing a brown leather jacket. He got to the event early to help unload the trucks, but he also needed some hot food and socks.
Young has been living unsheltered in San Diego for almost two years. This was his second Breakfast Block, which to him feels like a community event. “You know people are really friendly,” Young said. “It’s like family, in a sense, the way they come towards people.”
Volunteers help people select shoes and fill their jewel-tone knapsacks, which Breakfast Block provides, with essentials like toothpaste and hand sanitizer. The volunteers wore name tags and chatted happily with everyone passing through.
Edward Pulluaim stopped by with his 5-year-old daughter Shaylin. He was able to get some food and slacks for his job as a security guard. And Shaylin beamed with her rainbow-colored floral headband that one of the volunteers gave her.
Pulluaim, who said he moved to Imperial Beach in 2019 from Kansas City, now lives in his car with his girlfriend while his daughter and her mother live in a shelter run by Father Joe’s Village.
“We are just trying to get a place in California, going through it. Just like everybody else,” Pulluiam said.
San Diego is a particularly difficult place to find affordable housing. The median price for a single family home in San Diego Country rose to $815,120 in April, and the rental market is no easier. According to a report by The California Housing Partnership, 132,298 low-income renters in the county do not have access to affordable housing.
Pulluiam says that he wishes homeless outreach programs were more focused on providing mental health services and direct monetary aid. Breakfast Block does not provide those things, but Bazalaki is conscious of making sure the event serves unsheltered people’s actual needs.
“I think one of the most important parts is learning from the unsheltered people that we come in contact with,” she said. “Because it's not for me to say you need to eat kale, you need to eat whole wheat bread.”
A lot of people that come through the line have dental issues, so Bazalaki always asks people to donate softer food items, such as jam bars or peanut butter pouches.
“What’s counterproductive is me giving somebody a ton of fiber, which I think is healthy, but they don’t have access to restrooms,” said Bazalaki. “It's like a basic human right at this point.”
The California Legislature agrees with Bazalaki. In 2012, then Gov. Jerry Brown made California the first state to legally recognize the human right to water, including for sanitation, when he signed AB 685.
Public bathrooms, however, remain scarce in San Diego. A lack of access to toilet facilities contributed to the local Hepatitis A outbreak amongst the homeless community in 2017, and can also lead to increased interactions with the police. Most recently, SDPD police footage and bystander video showed the violent arrest of Jesse Evans, an unsheltered man, in La Jolla for allegedly attempting to urinate in public.
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Asking people what they actually need, rather than assuming, is key, say Bazalaki and other Breakfast Block volunteers. Emili D’Amico, who started volunteering after seeing an Instagram post, said the work is about solidarity, not charity.
“We aren’t here helping the less fortunate, we are out here helping our community,” said D’Amico said. “We want to better our community.”
As a Black woman and mother to two Black boys, Bazalaki’s drive for community-based solutions to our biggest problems was also spurred by murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
“I just 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,” Bazalaki said.
Breakfast Block normally takes place on Saturday, but Bazalaki moved the first event in June to Sunday so she could commemorate the birthday of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville Police last year. Taylor would have turned 28.
Bazalaki views her work with Breakfast Block as an extension of her racial justice work. “The fact that it's disproportionately people of color, it's like, there's something there,” she said. “These systems were put in place on purpose.”
In San Diego, Black people are 5.5% of the population but account for up to 30% of the homeless population, according to a recent report by the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness.
This racial disparity is not new and mirrors the rest of the county. Black Americans were 13% of the general population and yet 40% of the country’s homeless population in 2019.
Decades of racist policies, such as redlining and racial covenants and unequal access to mortgage markets continue to make Black Americans more vulnerable to housing insecurity.
Locally, the vestiges of these policies continue to create disparities.
According to a 2018 study by Redfin, only 30% of Black San Diegans owned their home compared to 61% of white San Diegans. And even when Black San Diegans own their homes, a 2021 study by Zillow found that Black-owned homes are valued at 18.4% less than white-owned homes in the region.
Bazalaki sees the systemic linkages driving homelessness and racial inequality. “None of these issues are individual issues,” she said. “There are community problems and we have to be there for each other.”
It’s why she cherishes the community she has formed through Breakfast Block. It’s a tangible thing that she can do with other people to make San Diego a more just place even if it’s just a cup of coffee at a time.
“It gets discouraging because it feels like such a big issue,” she said. “That’s when I just put my head down and am like, I’m just going to focus on getting things to the people that need them and work on that.”
To learn more about Breakfast Block visit: www.breakfastblocksd.org