Helping the Homeless Feel Like They Belong

donation box for homeless woman

Photo Credit: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Marla Bautista had already suffered the loss of her father and mother when an abusive stepfather kicked her out at age 18. With nothing but a teddy bear and a trash bag of clothes, she was left to fend for herself for years, cycling between friends’ houses, shelters, and the streets of Denver.

The one stable place where she kept ending up was at a downtown Catholic church, where she ate hot meals each week. Waiting in line outside the church one day, she encountered a simple but profound act of generosity.

“These volunteers were handing out bags of hygiene packs” — soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, and more — “and would say a prayer for us,” recalls Bautista. She promised herself that “if I ever overcame my situation, I would do the same. I’d give back with no expectation of receiving anything.”

Now 37, married and a mother of two kids, that’s precisely what she does.

'Belonging Boxes'

For seven years, she has run the Bautista Project, a family-owned nonprofit based out of her home in Tampa, Florida, that offers “belonging boxes” and blankets and pillows to the homeless who live on the streets and in shelters. The boxes include razors, soaps, toothpaste, and feminine hygiene products. The blankets and pillows are made out of repurposed military fatigues, which Bautista, the wife of a U.S. Army geospatial engineer, collects from friends and community members who are also enlisted. Her husband and kids help pack the boxes and sew the bedding materials.

“In the Bible, Jesus says, ‘If I have it, you have it. If someone is hungry, you feed them. If someone is in need of clothing, you give them clothing',” says Bautista, paraphrasing Matthew 25. “I live my life by that lesson.”

"In the Bible, Jesus says, ‘If I have it, you have it. If someone is hungry, you feed them. If someone is in need of clothing, you give them clothing'. I live my life by that lesson.

Bautista, who gradually transitioned out of homelessness after several years with the aid of a supportive social worker who helped her get her first job and eventually her own apartment. She married her husband, Ulisses, in 2007. She’s taken the Bautista Project from city to city as the family has transferred from Germany to Colorado to New York and, for the last year, Tampa.

In Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, there are around 1,650 homeless people on average at any time. In Florida, the homeless population stands at over 28,000, the third highest in the country after California and New York. Homelessness in the U.S. has decreased by 12% since 2007, but the homeless population in the nation is still greater than 550,000.

Bautista, whose organization has so far donated dozens of its homemade blankets and pillows to those who are unsheltered, and given out thousands of “belonging boxes” in the Tampa area and elsewhere, says she sees her role as a limited yet important one in aiding those in need.

“We’re small and entirely funded by family and friends,” she says. “Yet we can make a difference in individual lives one day at a time.”

Partnering with Other Groups

Still, Bautista acknowledges, the changes needed to improve the lives of the homeless go much further than a small group’s generous acts. They require structural changes in city and county budgets to provide greater resources for homeless communities, including housing, job training, mental-health counseling, healthcare access, and social-worker services, she says.

One way Bautista has expanded her own footprint is by teaming with local organizations, including one called Hearts and Hands for the Homeless and Hungry. A volunteer-run group similar to her own, it provides home-cooked hot meals for the homeless and hungry in downtown Tampa, including a weekly food truck where volunteers serve up to 250 families.

“Groups like the Bautista Project come to join us to volunteer and also share their own ‘belonging boxes’ to expand the services we can offer to individuals,” says Camille Robinson, a 48-year-old hotel auditor who runs the small, year-old nonprofit in her spare time. “Organizations like hers and ours are here to fill the gaps in areas where larger nonprofits are stretched thin.”

Hearts and Hands volunteers travel each weekend throughout counties in the Tampa Bay region to feed the homeless and hungry. Through the Bautista Project, Bautista and her family have kept their lens on those in downtown Tampa and neighborhoods with high poverty.

Bautista was aiming to open her own nonresidential 3,000-square-foot day shelter with locker rooms and laundry facilities until the coronavirus pandemic altered fundraising and construction plans. Now, she is focusing on those who are out of work and in need, and has put plans for the new building on the back burner.

"We have to meet people where they are at. The need is huge right now,” says Bautista. “It does not take a lot to help a person feel valued and confident, which is a feeling homeless people often find hard to come by. If with something as simple as our ‘belonging boxes’ we can help even a few people feel greater self-esteem, then those people can make a greater difference in their lives for the long term. That’s our dream."


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