Today we’d like to introduce you to Lycia Naff.
Lycia, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Seeing so many homeless adults on the streets during my daily L.A. commute finally got the best of me. These human beings looked like relatives. It wore me down.
That nagging choice — of whom to help and whom to drive away from —lead me to this decision, “If I’ve got it, I’ll give it. If I don’t have it, I won’t.”
I began offering water, body wipes, and protein from my car window since no toilets or fountains exist on public streets. I did this for years.
Then I met Gladys, 56, a strong, sober black woman living in a tent on the outskirts of Skid Row. I served her 3x a week, as well as her entire block from my old SUV. When she moved to a safer street, I served her new street, as well as her old one. Before I knew it, I was becoming the first Drive-By Do-Gooder!
Like an ice-cream truck, I roll down the warehouse streets. My shout-out bounces off the concrete walls. “Water, String Cheese, Cleaning Wipes!” Slowly, the elderly and disabled emerge from their tents to get a little temporary love. Often my friends join me to experience this direct hand-to-hand type of giving.
Gladys gets all the credit for suggesting, way back in 2013, that I stop spending only my money to help her and her neighbors. Maybe ask for donations? And no joke, that very day, three different friends randomly offered me about $35 for the effort.
We were onto something! Perfect timing, as I’d just been laid off. But in August 2015, I still had enough personal cash to turn Drive-By Do-Gooders into a legal non-profit, buy our trademark and create a website. I had no idea what this giving hobby would evolve into. But I’m a legit charity now 🙂
Some months I collect as little as $600 to supply 500 people with hydration, hygiene, protein. That’s a drop in the bucket. My county has 56,000 people physically existing on the sidewalks, under bridges, in old cars.
That math is tough for me. I can only spend so much. I can only do so much. It’s not my job to solve the homeless epidemic. While politicians and developers work on the end game of permanent housing, here’s my end game:
As soon as I get enough donations, I go to Costco, buy cases of water, cold string cheese, boxes of baby wipes. Next, I turn my living room, and eventually my car, into an assembly line. I invite friends to help when they can.
We hand-make hundreds of hygiene body wipes by dividing boxes of baby wipes into baggies and infusing them with rubbing alcohol. It’s dirty on our streets. Bathrooms are buckets for the homeless. Some turn down water or even our 15 grams of protein, but no one turns down the body wipes.
The spontaneous smiles of appreciation that flow in both directions is totally worth all that heavy lifting worth it me. I have no agenda. Just pure giving. However, the love I receive might be a secret alternative motive 🙂
I make the budget work by spending our donation dollars on supplies and not overhead. We are solely sustained by volunteers and $4 donations at: https://goo.gl/PNARZn. No one gets paid, including me.
Funny thing is these days when I’m driving back to my tree-lined street back from Skid Row, the emotion I feel is just plain normal, like “Oh yeah, that was needed. In fact, that water and hygiene was really, really needed.”
Serving human beings who live in 3rd world conditions only a 5 miles away from my 1st world house, makes me feel like this street-level, hand-to-hand giving makes sense, like recycling or paying taxes. Even if what I’m offering is just temporary relief. I’ve never been homeless. Many times I could have been. Just a few paychecks away. I saved my brother from chronic homelessness five years ago. I’d gotten the instinct to drive down to Venice beach to see if he was still there. He was. He was ready for that hand of help.
Many homeless don’t feel worthy of being helped, like my brother at that time. The shame and self-hate pushes those hands of help away. My hope is that with my consistent presence on the streets, maybe a few folks I serve might eventually feel that hand of hope when it reaches out to them.
Last year, Gladys died, six months after we’d moved her into warm housing. Seems her body was too weak to finally enjoy her life indoors. She waited outside in a tent for ten years. Gladys is our first Skid Row success story.
Those small wins keep us going. We try to post on social media every week, in hopes that what some view as an inconvenient eyesore is really a human being going through a tough transition.
Good news for me, after six years of driving by and doing good, I feel relief. I feel free of those burning questions of “Why isn’t this homeless thing fixed yet? Who’s responsible to make this go away? Where did all those tax dollars go? Why so many of them?”
I feel free in my heart because at least I can drive-by and do-good. Simple.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Oh, the road has been as smooth as butter! Ha!
Trying to get donations for homeless adults — and not abandoned kittens or starving children — is very un-smooth.
Very little empathy exists for adults who can walk and talk and beg but can’t get a job? That is exactly how most potential donors feel. I don’t blame them. Adults who are homeless don’t garner much sympathy.
Homeless adults are an eye-sore and make those of us who live indoors and have jobs very uncomfortable to witness. That could be us or someone we know one day. Better to turn a blind eye
And, truthfully, the homeless are not an easy clientele to serve. Mental health and addiction issues abound. But, for a second, imagine you’ve got behind financially, and you end up on the streets for a few days.
After two weeks of making a sidewalk your home, even if you’ve never had addictions or mental illness, trust me you begin developing them. A toilet and drinking water is hard to find. It’s cold and wet and nothing is easy.
For me, that daily real-life scenario garners compassion. Everyone, indoors or outdoors, deserves basic human essentials like drinking water and hygiene.
While tax dollars make its way into permanent housing, I feel privileged to raise enough money to be able to drive down the poorest of streets and serve. The positives outweigh the negatives.
I do want to emphasize that Skid Row and other homeless camps have never been dangerous for me. I’ve never seen a weapon or a physical brawl. Screaming, yes. Different stages of undress, yes. But no violence.
The 20 square blocks that makeup Skid Row is home to 11,000 people right now. Plenty of police in cars and undercover keep this expansive area safe. Department of Sanitation enforces a weekly street cleaning. Folks move their tents to the other side of the street, and civilization, as poor as it is, continues.
No one wants to call attention to themselves so if a tent neighbor is creating a problem, that block handles it. And if not, police step in. Biggest crime is tent theft. And we do act as 1st responders of sorts. More than once we’ve called 911 and helped save a life.
What are your plans for the future? What are you looking forward to or planning for – any big changes?
Big changes will come in the form of funding. I can’t lift all that water and do this entire thing alone, nor do I want to. Paying volunteers to help me with everything from the Costco purchasing to posting stuff as proof of social media costs money. I have board members and volunteers, but most weeks I’m on my own. The $600 budget creates four weekend runs to serve 120 homeless with two bottles of water, two pieces of cold string cheese = 15 grams of protein and handcrafted body wipes.
Plans for the future is to have someone discover us, help us raise money to continue this humble effort, pay volunteers, pay my gas bill and one day even pays me a small stipend! A girl can dream, right? We are a good group of hearts, but getting money for adults on the streets is a tough sell.
- Email: lycia@DriveByDoGooders.org