It wasn’t until his first day interning with OC's Office of County Counsel that Garrett Dunbar came to realize the magnitude of Orange County’s homeless population.
“My first day walking to work was my first day discovering what the Civic Center was like and the of shock of seeing all these people outside and having the public officials who are literally in charge of our county government just going to work and not doing anything about it,” he said. “All of those people we’re being completely ignored by everyone walking past and I just couldn’t sit with that.”
Dunbar started asking around and no one had any answers. The county's Department of Mental Health's website had broken links for homeless resources their links; when he called them about it, no one seemed to care (the link is still broken). “I went to the Orange County sheriff's department and tried to find their homeless outreach supervisor and they didn’t really know what I was talking about,” he said.
With all the frustration and lack of support, Dunbar decided to take the situation into his own hands by forming the Orange County Burrito Project, a 501c3 non-profit that engages the community through monthly events where volunteers join to assemble over 350 burritos and sort through donated toiletries and clothing to be distributed throughout the Civic Center, flash point for OC's increasing homeless population.
Dunbar’s community outreach began in high school, volunteering with a group called Los Compadres, “We were volunteering with soup kitchens and making packages for Christmas to go to families that were a lot less fortunate,” he says. “Volunteering really opened up my eyes to seeing how dramatically different my life was from the people we were helping, that’s when I realized I wanted to help people as much as I could.”
While attending UCLA, Dunbar partook in UCLA-coordinated volunteer days, painting elementary schools in the community. It was also around this time that Dunbar became involved with informal burrito projects around Los Angeles. “This was my first time going into their world and seeing how [homeless] live,” he says. “When you go to these little tents, sometimes it's one individual person and sometimes it's a whole family and that to me was the most shocking part, you really don’t know what’s on the other side of that tent until you say, 'Burritos, water, who wants some?'”
Still remembering that experience, Dunbar reached out to to LA's burrito activists to bring something like that to OC. “I was working at my school’s law library and had access to all these books so I just read everything I could find on how to start a 501c3 and how to create a non-profit company,” he said. “I drafted everything myself and November 2015 was our first burrito project. We started with about 150 burritos because that’s what we had funding for. I mean, initially it was just me funding everything so that was all I had funding for."
Donations came quickly, as did the demand, leading to them quickly making 350 burritos per session.
Until recently, Dunbar and his fiancee were running the operation out of their apartment, making burritos from a four-burner stove with an oven. Then came a meeting with Jason Mercado, owner of Sweet Mission Cookie Company and Manager of the East End Incubator Kitchens in downtown SanTana. “When I first met Garrett and he told me he was doing it out of his apartment, I told him ‘Yea, you’re going to need a bigger space,’” said Mercado. Formerly homeless, he quickly found them free space at the Kitchens. “It was very important for me to make that happen for them because I do a lot of homeless outreach too and I saw it as great partnership and opportunity to work together.”
Eventually Dunbar would like to buy a building and turn it into a homeless shelter, running a full-service facility providing job rehabilitation programs and having them help with day-to-day operations. “I got my degree in law and my fiancee got her masters in social work and ideally what I’d like to do is use my law degree to help with whatever I can, in terms of advancing policy or helping out with legal representation,” he says. “My fiance with her degree in social work, one of the things that she’s really passionate about is immigration rights and trying to get undocumented people as many rights as possible and getting them the help they need with whatever services they need access to.”
For more information on the OC Burrito Project, follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OCburritoproject