Community Seva, a non-profit organization in the Silicon Valley founded by Indian American Nathan Ganeshan, is gearing up for its annual winter drive to provide meals and backpacks stuffed with needs for cold weather to the area’s growing homeless population.
The organization launched the drive Oct. 1 with three ambitious goals: to provide 4,000 meals to residents at six local homeless shelters in Santa Clara County, Calif. Community Seva will also serve 500 meals of ham, rice, grilled vegetables, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie to homeless residents on the day after Thanksgiving.
And throughout the fall and winter, the organization will prepare and distribute 1,000 backpacks stuffed with beanies, gloves, towels, blankets, rain ponchos, and a hygiene kit.
Ganeshan told India-West that homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area – one of the wealthiest regions in the nation – is rapidly increasing. “The shelters are over-crowded,” he said, noting that rising rents coupled with the unavailability of affordable housing has put more people on the streets.
In June, Santa Clara County released data from the federally-required biennial “Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey,” which surveys the number of homeless people during the first 10 days of January each year. The county summated that the homeless population had risen by 13 percent over the previous year to a total of 7,394 people. While the number of homeless veterans and disabled people had dropped, there was a significant increase in homeless families and youth.
Last fall, voters in Santa Clara County passed Measure A, which will allot $215 million to build permanent housing for the chronically homeless population.
Prior to founding Community Seva in 2013, Ganeshan and his family would periodically deliver pizza and peanut butter sandwiches to homeless people residing in parks in downtown San Jose. “If you cannot feed 100 people, feed one,” said Ganeshan, quoting Mother Teresa.
Over the past four years, Ganeshan has amassed a team of 1,000 volunteers who shop, prepare and serve breakfast and dinner every weekend at four homeless shelters. Supporters of the organization sponsor a meal. The costs of a breakfast range from $150 to $300, depending on the number of people served. Sponsoring a dinner can range from $250 to $300.
Since its inception, Community Seva has cooked and served 47,000 meals.
The organization used to distribute food in downtown San Jose parks. But – citing complaints from area residents who said they couldn’t take their kids to play there – the city has now banned food distribution in parks, and is actively issuing citations and fines to individuals and organizations who continue to distribute food to homeless people there.
Ganeshan told India-West he is upset about the new rule. “Restricting us from serving food in the park is not going to solve the homeless population,” he stated. “The city has to find some medium between its housed and un-housed residents,” he said, noting that Community Seva would serve food in the park from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., when most children are at school. The city has also banned plastic grocery bags, so the homeless have no method by which to store food.
Ganeshan said he has tried to work with members of the San Jose City Council, including former city councilmember Ash Kalra, who is now a state Assemblyman. Kalra is acutely aware of Community Seva: in May, the freshman Assemblyman presented Ganeshan with a “Leadership Award in Community Service.”
Community Seva is now aiming to raise $25,000 to distribute 1,000 backpacks, at a cost of $25 each. The organization takes no “in-kind” donations, with the aim of maintaining consistency in the quality of each backpack.
Starting Nov. 15, volunteers – including children – will fill the backpacks and get them ready for distribution.
“When you see a homeless person trying to survive on the streets, you realize you have to do something,” said Ganeshan. “We cannot give them a home, but we can give them a hot meal and the means to stay warm,” he said.