Burritos With a Side of Compassion
Garrett Dunbar Teaches Us That Change Begins With One Person
Written By: Anne Marie Panoringan | Illustration By: Hans Bennewitz
Mission Statement: Our mission is to empower the community to become proactive agents of change, focusing on the multifaceted issues contributing to homelessness, and working together to create a path towards self-sufficiency for our homeless neighbors.
t is noon on Friday morning, and Garrett Dunbar has made a grocery run, unloaded everything at 4th Street Market’s incubator kitchen, and has a batch of pinto beans boiling. When these are ready, he’ll drain them before adding tomatoes, green chilies, onions, garlic, cumin, dark chili powder, paprika and cayenne. As this mixture simmers down, Dunbar plugs in a 60-cup cooker and begins prep on his cilantro lime rice recipe. A few familiar faces arrive early to set up a check-in table and begin warming tortillas.
Remaining volunteers arrive at 6:30 p.m., just as the rice and beans finish cooking. Before they get rolling, Garret thanks everyone for their time and provides a brief overview of Orange County’s homeless population. For example, as of January 2017, there were 4,792 people without a place to call their own. Of that amount, 2,584 individuals are completely unsheltered, while the remaining 2,208 are divided between emergency and transitional housing. After the weight of those figures settles in, hotel pans filled with salsa, cabbage, rice and flavorful beans are lined up, and this group receives a quick lesson on the burrito assembly line.
While other chapters of this organization focus solely on the food aspect, the Orange County Burrito Project delves further into their mission, educating its participants on the people they feed. Dunbar’s membership with the county’s Homeless Provider Forum and Homelessness Task Force empowers him with information on studies and statistics, providing a perspective beyond a nourishing meal. En route to their destination, the group (carrying bottled waters, burritos and hygiene kits they’ve also assembled) pauses in front of The Courtyard Shelter. Garrett spends this time to explain how the shelter functions and answer any questions they might have. They arrive at Santa Ana’s Civic Center Plaza around 7:30 p.m., spending the next hour handing out supplies and taking the time to engage in conversation.
Growing up, Garrett Dunbar believed that attending law school and ultimately taking over his father’s law practice was his career path. However, once he began his legal education, “I found myself really struggling with my depression, and just unable to find passion in what I was going to spend the rest of my foreseeable future doing.” Garrett’s love of nature led him to pursue a focus in environmental law, lining up his interest with nonprofit groups such as Orange County Coastkeepers and Surfrider Foundation.
En route to an internship with the Office of County Counsel in Orange County, he witnessed the homeless crisis first-hand. When Dunbar attempted to learn what was being done to remedy it, he encountered one dead end after another. His wife (then fiancée) suggested that he volunteer with a Los Angeles chapter of the Burrito Project, as she had done in the past. Remembering his experiences volunteering in high school, he excitedly joined. As a result, Garrett became motivated to form a local chapter.
On average, the Orange County Burrito Project assembles between 200-250 burritos per Community Street Outreach event they hold. With two or three events a month, that equates to approximately 450-675 burritos distributed monthly. Many businesses and student organizations have spent time on the burrito assembly line. In 2017, groups from Yamaha Financial Services, Girl Scouts, City of Mission Viejo, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and Santa Ana Valley High School have lent a hand.
Towards the end of October, the city of Santa Ana enacted an emergency ordinance, criminalizing many of the daily activities of the homeless, plus making it unlawful for groups like OCBP to provide services without proper permitting. The OC Burrito Project was the first group navigating through the process with Santa Ana to be an approved service organization. What this means in the future for Garrett’s chapter is a $150 fee due for every community outreach project conducted. OCGP is also working to become fully permitted with the Health Department, a choice made by Dunbar. His chapter is the sole group out of the entire organization to face this type of ordinance, which is disheartening when you consider that he also took the time to file them as a full-fledged 501c3 (non-profit status) with the state back in 2015.
A comprehensive cost study of homelessness conducted by Orange County United Way and the University of California, Irvine provided insight on common attributes of the homeless population. They learned that the vast majority of Orange County’s homeless are U.S. citizens and long-term Orange County residents of more than ten years, rather than individuals who have recently moved to the county. Also, homelessness is caused primarily by lack of sufficient income or job loss combined with high costs of housing in the county. Other factors, like family dysfunction, health and substance abuse, increase one’s vulnerability to homelessness in such a context.
Garrett recounts a conversation with a retired Disney animator who was forced to seek another job because he couldn’t afford his rent. His car was totaled after an accident, forcing him to make a choice: Purchase a new vehicle and hope to get hired before rent was due, or pay rent and figure out how to get to his interviews before he owed rent again. The man bought the car but was forced to live in it after being evicted. Once he was discovered sleeping in his car, it was towed, and he became homeless since that time.
Despite stories like this one, Garret Dunbar is optimistic about his endeavors, “Looking to the future, what continues to drive me as an advocate for the OC Burrito Project is the vision of a better future for our communities, addressing the underlying issues to homelessness like the affordable housing crisis, lacking mental health support, and the needs of our underserved communities.”
Q&A With Garrett Dunbar of the Orange County Burrito Project
Q: On average, how many burritos do you produce a month?
During each Community Street Outreach event we make about 200-250 burritos and each month we have 2-3 events; so we generally make between 450-675 burritos every month.
Q: Is there a preferred way to create your burrito (i.e., A reliable brand of tortilla, required ingredients that should be present, a particular way you roll them)?
Our burritos are vegan (mainly to minimize the risk of foodborne illness and maximize the number of burritos we can produce). Our signature bean recipe starts with dry pinto beans, and then I add tomatoes, green chilies, onions, garlic, cumin, dark chili powder, paprika, and cayenne and let it simmer for about six hours. Our rice started as a copy of Chipotle’s cilantro lime rice, but I think ours is better now (laughs). We use fresh limes that I juice AND zest and then add chopped cilantro to the white rice after it finishes cooking.
Q: Tell me about #burritosofchange.
It is the idea that change starts with each of us taking action to fix what we see as something wrong in the world. For us, it’s making and spreading #burritosofchange throughout our communities and with our community members.
Q: Were there any challenges to drafting your non-profit paperwork?
Yes, the paperwork and the requirements for annual compliance are moderately confusing, but I was also working in my school’s law library, and so I grabbed all the books on forming a 501c3 and figured it out. Also, at the time the filing fee for the IRS was $400, and because I was using my financial aid money to fund all of our filing fees and the initial costs of the ingredients, that significant initial cost was difficult to factor into my school budget. But we had our first volunteering event November 2015 and received 501c3 status from the IRS by January 2016.
Q: Have you had any project collaborations in the past year, or do you have any planned for 2018?
On most Sundays after our public Community Street Outreach events, one of our long-time volunteers turned volunteer & board member has some awesome connections with local bands through his work at Universal Music Group and holds benefit concerts for us over at the Doll Hut in Anaheim with a constantly changing line-up of great bands.
I have a couple of ideas I have been thinking of for 2018 and one thing I think would be a cool way to raise awareness and get the community out and engaging with the homeless would be a big bike ride down the Riverbed trail. Like, have stations set up at different trail entrances and have various activities set up along the path with everyone biking together and enjoying the day. It’s a logistical nightmare with all the jurisdictions in the Riverbed, but I think it would make for an excellent event.
Q: Are there any memorable/meaningful personal interactions that you’d like to share with regards to distributing burritos and supplies?
When I was working in The Courtyard Shelter with Legal Aid Society, I met a guy in his mid-30s who was living in the shelter and taking care of his mom who lived with him in the shelter. They ended up in the shelter after being evicted from their last apartment for not paying rent because all of this guy’s money went towards paying for his mother’s treatments for dementia and her medical care. Despite working a full-time job in South Coast Plaza, he couldn’t afford to take care of his mother and himself and keep a roof over their head. Finding housing for himself or his mother through the available nonprofits was incredibly painful and there were no places that would allow them to stay together. If they wanted housing, they would have to separate, which was an unbearable thought. The last time I saw them, they were both still inside of The Courtyard Shelter.