Punks With LunchPunks with Lunch/COHRT volunteers Ryan Dal Porto and Paula Rubin (all photos by Aaron Rubin)

Punks with Lunch started in September of 2015 when a group of friends decided to collectively pool their funds to make 40 lunches for distribution to the needy in West Oakland. The lunches were gone within 15 minutes, confirming a community need. The group kept it up; they began some fundraising efforts and they expanded distribution to include hygiene and harm reduction supplies.

Solidified in their mission, Punks with Lunch has been helping people in need get some of the nourishment and care they need every Sunday in West Oakland for nearly two years. I was fortunate enough to sit down with founding member Alejandra del Pinal to find out more about Punk with Lunch, their work, and the need in our community.

The Bay Bridged: Punks with Lunch has a real ring to it. How’d you come up with the name?

Alejandra del Pinal: After the first time we went out, we were sitting around and talking and it just kind of came out. Punks with Lunch, it stuck.

TBB: Where did you get the idea to start Punks with Lunch? What was the catalyst?

AdP: Well, I always wanted to volunteer at certain soup kitchens when I was younger. I knew a bunch of other people who wanted to do it, too. I thought, ‘If all of us want to do it, how hard could it be to do it ourselves?’ So we did.

TBB: Punks with Lunch started off providing lunch, but you all decided to expand to hygiene and harm reduction. Can you tell me a little about how you did that?

AdP: We just started asking people for donations. We hardly buy anything, except for the food and laundry detergent. We mostly get those things through donations. People just started giving. At first, it just took up a really small table, but our name got out there and people started giving more. Now, it’s a big part of our distribution. There’s certainly a need.

TBB: Can you speak a little bit about exactly what Punk with Lunch provides each week?

AdP: We prepare to give out 120 lunches. Sometimes, because of fluctuation in the encampments, we have 80 people to give them to, sometimes we run out. It just depends. We take in about 2,000 needles each week and give out…way more than that. It’s difficult to say for sure, because people fluctuate, but that’s a rough estimate.

Punk With LunchPreparing sandwiches at the Punks With Lunch Command Center.

TBB: Yeah, the one time I went to volunteer with Punk with Lunch, I was certainly struck by the constant flow of people. Can you speak for a little while about the need in this area?

AdP: I think that there is a need and a lack of consistency. You see a lot of people going out and doing the exact same thing we do, but without consistency. I think there’s a need to build relationships, to see the same faces. That’s one thing that we provide that not a lot of other people do. We’re there every single weekend. We see the same faces every single week. I think that if more people did that, it would make a big difference. You’re not just giving someone food, you’re giving someone you know food. There are services, food and harm reduction services, around Oakland and they go the same thing. There’s people who go out and give food, and they’re good people. There’s still a need for relationships, talking to someone over and over again. There’s a greater need for that.

TBB: And you’re an all-volunteer organization at this point, correct?

AdP: Yeah, yeah, all volunteers.

TBB: Do you think that the fact that you are an all-volunteer organization helps with relationship building?

AdP: Maybe. The thing people ask us most is a) if we’re in recovery and b) if we’re with a church. Well, some people are in recovery who volunteer, but when we say that we’re not really affiliated with any other group, the response is, ‘Oh, cool.’ I think people knowing that we are volunteers and we are coming out on our own volition does have an effect. Nothing crazy, but a little bit.

TBB: Maybe just casting another lens on the group?

AdP: Yeah, something like that, for sure.

TBB: Can you describe the demographics of your volunteer group? Who usually volunteers with Punks with Lunch?

AdP: It’s people of all ages. We get all kinds of people coming through. That’s one of the things that’s really great about it. It helps that we’re one of the few organizations that doesn’t have minimum volunteer requirements. You know, some organizations requirement that you volunteer twice a month or a certain number of hours. We don’t do that, so we get a lot of different people checking us out and coming to help.

TBB: Is it mostly a word-of-mouth thing, how people get involved?

AdP: Initially, it was just word-of-mouth. We also use Facebook. Every week, I’m on there reminding people, ‘Hey, Sunday’s the day!’ There’s definitely pros and cons to reaching out to people that way, but, yeah, mostly it is word-of-mouth and Facebook.

TBB: You said you get a pretty healthy variety of people volunteering. I know that in the past some of the organizations that I have worked with set up a real clear boundary between service receiver and service provider. How does Punks with Lunch feel about that? Could someone receiving harm reduction supplies, for example, be a volunteer?

AdP: All we ask people to do is maintain privacy and show people compassion. Other than that, we don’t really say anything about boundaries. I say to volunteers that if someone asks for something you can’t give to everyone, like permission to use a cell phone, then why would you give it to one person? That’s the only sort of boundary, I suppose. Most people who volunteer live in West Oakland, so we’re seeing people who we see daily, so it’s more of a neighbor relationship. That’s what we want to emphasize – not provider and recipient.

TBB: Are there any circumstances in which you would refuse someone participation?

AdP: As long as there are no inappropriate or violent advances, I don’t see why there’s any reason for someone not to participate. I mean, you can go into scene politics, but at the end of the day, what we’re doing goes beyond that.

TBB: So, it’s more about the relationships you’re building at the moment?

AdP: Yeah, I mean, I always tell people when you’re going to distribute, you’ve got to be non-judgemental. You might know someone, and you might have beef with them. You can’t bring that to distribution. Some of what we do is life-saving – clean needles and food are important. You’re not going to deny someone clean needles because you know them and their past, and you don’t know the person next to them. We just give it all to anyone who needs it.

Punks with LunchRyan Dal Porto speaks with a client.

TBB: Let’s talk about the need for a moment for harm-reduction supplies specifically. I was reading on a Punks with Lunch needle clean-up recently and it seemed you all picked up a tremendous number of needles. Would you say this area, West Oakland, has a greater need for harm reduction supplies than neighboring areas?

AdP: It’s hard to say. I think there is definitely a need here, and with there being so many encampments it might be more visible. I think all places are in need of it, and all parts of the Bay Area are lacking when it comes to meeting that need. Oakland needs help, but Richmond needs help, too. I think every place needs more help.

TBB: You mentioned the visibility of encampments in Oakland. Who’s living in those camps?

AdP: We see all kinds of people. Men, women. A lot of people are older, but we see a lot of young people, too. We see people from all walks of life. When you actually go out and you see, there are a lot of people out there. I’m not really into statistics, but you can’t stereotype a homeless person.

TBB: Can you speak a little about the city’s relationship with these encampments?

AdP: Yeah, I mean, I am unsure. I know from reading the news that San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley do not show as much compassion as they can to the people who live here. You can notice that in the amount of services that are provided. A lot of people are aware the homeless population is growing, but even the numbers you see in the paper are low. They’re not counting the people living in cars or RVs or couch-surfing. Those are very low numbers. It could be raising rents, the fact that drugs are prevalent, mental health issues – an issue that isn’t going away and isn’t helped by rising rents, and the lack of services. I don’t know why, actually, things are the way they are, but I do know the city of Oakland could be doing more to be compassionate.

TBB: What do you think the city could be doing?

AdP: That’s an extremely loaded question. I mean, there’s so much the city could be doing. Just something like setting up Lava Mae, giving people showers. Port-a-potties at encampments, dumpsters around encampments – with regular pickups, affordable housing, building up the SROs to make them more affordable…there’s so much that could be done. Something as simple as providing a list of resources, helping people to navigate those resources, that’s something that could definitely help. I was searching for something like that on my computer, and most of the services had contact information that was out-of-date or they didn’t exist anymore. Getting people in touch with services would be a big thing.

Jamie Meronk of Punks With Lunch.

TBB: It seems like there’s this constant tension between the city not wanting the homeless encampments because of public safety issues, such as biohazardous waste, but not providing the services like port-a-potties or dumpsters to elevate that issue. Why do you think that is?

AdP: There are people out there who say that if you help homeless people, you’re not really helping them. You’re giving out a handout, and they’re leeching off you. There’s also a lot of people who say, ‘Not in my backyard!’ They want the homeless to get services, just not where they live.

TBB: So, as long as the help is invisible, it’s OK?

AdP: Yeah, invisible, but also there’s this idea that you can’t give someone too much help. They need to help themselves. They need to do it themselves. That kind of mentality is what pressures the city government. If the government helps, they might be perceived as helping too much. People also don’t want to see the homeless. They’re paying thousands of dollars in rent, and they feel entitled to not see homeless people out of their window because they pay that. I feel like that mentality is pushing the city not to help.

Punks With LunchServing lunch at the 35th and Peralta site in Oakland.

TBB: What do you say to someone who says that you’re perpetuating the problem? Someone who thinks that these services hurt more than help?

AdP: Well, my beliefs – my beliefs are my beliefs, and might not reflect what Punks with Lunch believes,

[but they] go along with non-judgement and compassion. I believe we don’t have to expect people to live inside. Why should we? There are plenty of people who don’t want to live inside. Why should they not receive the same treatment and services and respect that people who live inside do? That means providing people with certain necessities, and that just doesn’t exist usually, because we think a proper person is someone who lives inside. Which is ridiculous [to do] instead of providing a safe environment for people who feel that they don’t want to for whatever reason.

TBB: What do you want from people reading this interview?

AdP: I want people to understand that people, regardless of their home status, are people. Regardless of their addiction status, are people. I think that’s what is lacking from a lot of articles, where you get a lot of statistics thrown at you. When you actually go out and see and meet people they’re not just a homeless person, they’re a person. That’s what I say to people who want to volunteer or donate. If someone wants to donate a sleeping bag, I say, ‘Why don’t you go out in your neighborhood and offer it to someone?’ Meet your neighbor, you know? That’s what I want. When you look at people as human beings, that’s when you see them as more than just a homeless person or a drug addict or all of the bad things society says they are.

If you would like to volunteer or find out more about Punks with Lunch, visit their Facebook page. There will be a benefit show for Punks With Lunch featuring Space Toilet, GOOP, Grainer, and He-Gassen on August 26. Check their Facebook page for details including location and time.