By Siani Colon, Contributing Editor
Homies Helping Homies, a mutual-aid project based in the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia, started accidentally during the wave of summer protests after the killing of George Floyd.
On May 25, in Minneapolis, a Black man named George Floyd was arrested by police after a store clerk called 911 alleging that Floyd paid with a counterfeit bill. During the arrest, white police officer Derek Chauvin was filmed pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes while Floyd was already handcuffed and lying face down, eventually lying motionless. Floyd was pronounced dead that same day at the emergency room.
The video, another example of police brutality against Black people in the United States, went viral and sparked protests across the country, including in Philadelphia. The unrest lasted for weeks, including demonstrations in West Philadelphia and I-676 where protestors and bystanders were tear gassed by Philadelphia police.
As demonstrations went on, some community members wanted to support the protesters by providing them with supplies. However, not everyone was capable of leaving their house during the pandemic, as they may have been immunocompromised or simply anxious about going outside.
According to Kevin Bass, co-founder of Homies Helping Homies, “a [community member] reached out to me and asked if we could hand out kits to Black protesters and activists.”
Bass and his roommate Anthony Adams, who live in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia and had experience as couriers, immediately went to work helping distribute donations to protesters on the ground.
“I think we passed out around $3,000 worth of supplies throughout the protests,” Adams said.
Some of the supplies they distributed included snacks, water, and wash-kits to help demonstrators who were tear gassed. During the chaos of the protests, some supporters misunderstood what donations were actually needed.
One day during the protests, donations of diapers and wipes appeared at their house, not exactly what they were looking to distribute. Despite this, the donations weren’t going to go to waste.
More donations started to arrive at their house and they needed to decide what to do with them. This excess in donations led to the creation of the mutual aid project, which launched on June 22 at their home.
Just what is mutual-aid?
Mutual aid is described as a system of people coming together to meet each other’s basic needs. It’s a voluntary and reciprocal act built upon solidarity and collective liberation. It differs from charity, which typically has a one-sided relationship, whereas mutual aid creates a network of people united against a common struggle.
“It’s just about sharing, sharing the wealth, and I’m just sharing our resources and sharing our tools to make sure that everyone has a fair shot,” Bass said. “And in simple words, everybody eats.”
Numerous mutual-aid efforts have appeared in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Community fridges have appeared across Philadelphia led by different groups, including in South Philadelphia. Distribution pop-ups giving away clothing, food, and hygiene essentials have also appeared over the past months.
Despite the recent fervor, it is not a new phenomenon.
The Black Panther Party has prime examples of mutual-aid work, such as their Free Breakfast Program. Mutual-aid exists even when it is not labeled as such like community gardens, childcare circles, and sharing excess with neighbors.
Homies Helping Homies has three core members including Bass, Adams, and Elliot Arrick. Arrick runs Big Top Thrift Shop, an Instagram thrift shop that has played a big role in promoting the project. Occasionally there are different volunteers, but they make up the main team.
The name of the project was also unintentional, originally suggested as a joke, but stuck as it encompassed the core mission: community members looking out for each other.
Distribution is typically bi-weekly, with hopes to switch to weekly in the future. The project has been a major time commitment.
“We started with the intentions of doing this weekly,” Adams said. “I work 60 hours a week and Kevin actually quit his job to organize and be available at the house to receive donations.”
As donations get dropped off, the organizers immediately take inventory and store them. Items typically in-demand at their tabling sessions include baby food and formula, bottled water, cooking oil, diapers, paper towels, toilet paper, and wipes. Aside from including pre-made meals, they also include cleaning supplies like dish soap, meeting needs beyond just hunger.
Adams was critical about prepackaged food boxes for people in need, as he received them growing up as a child, commenting that they’re not often what people may find appetizing or can create a real meal out of.
“You’d get these prepackaged boxes that have a dry sugarless cereal and a box of Velveeta cheese with no noodles,” he said. “None of that stuff makes sense.”
The volunteers originally prioritized goods such as canned food, pasta, and rice so they had an abundance of food with a long shelf life. But after feedback from community members, they realized these weren’t completely what people were looking for.
“A lot of kids like ravioli and a lot of older adults like soft fruits like peaches,” Adams said. “That’s something that’s always fluctuating as far as what we pass out.”
The group doesn’t set a limit on how many items community members are allowed to take during distribution sessions, not making assumptions on what people’s needs may be. From their observations, many people wind up redistributing resources among their family members and connecting others to the mutual aid project. The mission to provide resources to whomever is in need continues to be met.
Organizing does not go without its challenges.
“You can never have enough funding to get more supplies. You can never have enough traction.” Bass said. “We’re still growing and we’re going to continue to grow. And we’re never going to stop doing this.”
The project was filling a resource gap in Point Breeze.
“There’s a few organizations doing stuff in Point Breeze,” Adams said. “But it seems like the majority [of organizations] either focus out west, southeast, or north.”
Gentrification has increased over the years in Point Breeze, but there is still a vulnerable population there in need of assistance.
In the Point Breeze-area, the median household income for Census Tract 31, which includes 22nd Street and Tasker Avenue where Homies Helping Homies table, was $37,121 in 2018, according to 2018 American Community Survey 5-year estimates data gathered from Census Reporter. 19.7% of people within Census Tract 31 were also living below the poverty line.
Although demographics have shifted over the years, Point Breeze is still a majority Black community, with a general population density 90% higher than Philadelphia as a whole. There is a prominent elder population in the community with 16% of residents being over 65 years old and over.
There are a few corner stores sprinkled around the area, but no major grocery chain for residents to purchase food.
“There’s not a lot of resources or ways to be sustainable and live down here, especially when you have multiple families in such a small area,” Adams said.
In the first six months of the pandemic, more than half of in-hospital COVID-19 deaths were among Black and Hispanic patients, despite not being the majority of the U.S. population. These and older residents may not feel as comfortable going into corner stores that would be crowded and possibly spread the virus.
Through outdoor distribution events, Homies is meeting their needs as safely as possible.
Homies Helping Homies isn’t just being assisted by their Point Breeze community, but throughout Philadelphia. The West Philly Bunny Hop, which provides weekly food distribution in West Philly, recently offered to donate excess food from their pop-ups to Homies.
As the weather gets colder, Homies Helping Homies is showing no signs of stopping. The organizers hope to partner with a community center in the neighborhood and set up in the parking lot where tents and heating could be provided, Bass said.
In addition to their usual requests, organizers would also begin to collect winter gear such as blankets, jackets, and coats. They’re also requesting hand-warmers for volunteers manning the table.
Bass hopes that soon Homies can become certified as a 501-c3 nonprofit and begin to ask for grants to help sustain the project.
You can find Homies Helping Homies on their Instagram. If you’re interested in donating to Homies, you can send money via Venmo @homieshelpinghomies or drop off physical donations at their donation chest at 2144 Cross Street. The code to the lock is 1312. Message their Instagram if you dropped something off in the chest. For possible volunteer opportunities or questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org