Charlie Parker is on a mission to support the homeless community in Columbia, a community he said has a tendency to blend in or be forgotten.
About four or five years ago, Parker, the coordinator for the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, saw a man walking without shoes in the snow. This experience, he said, kickstarted the idea for his non-profit organization, The Invisibles, which provides vital resources to the homeless.
“It threw out the concept that it is the busiest part of downtown, and no one felt the need to acknowledge that he was walking barefoot in the snow,” Parker said. “It started with shoes. It built overtime.”
Parker began to get support from students. They helped with the organization and learned about service and the homeless community in Columbia. Through the help of the students, he has been able to create “buddy packs” for five years.
Senior Alisiana Peters worked as a student ambassador in 2014 and 2015 in the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative with Parker. She said Parker taught her about societal issues and privilege and has been her mentor.
“Homelessness can happen to literally anyone and there's not ‘one set type’ for someone who is homeless. I believe that is why the buddy packs are so important-- little things such as that can really make a huge difference,” Peters said.
Parker said the first step in making a buddy pack is getting a durable backpack.
“A lot of our homeless community, they have a lot of things, either donated or given to them, and they don’t have a way to carry all of those different things,” Parker said. “The bookbag is essential.”
To assemble the Buddy Packs, volunteers get together with friends and family for a packing party. They fill freezer zip-lock bags with items necessary to handle the winter. This includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, hand sanitizer, a first aid kit, Advil, vitamin C candies, lotion, a refillable Gatorade bottle, baby wipes, a blanket, a hat, socks, gloves and notes of encouragement.
The notes of encouragement give each buddy pack a personal touch that allows each individual to connect with the homeless community, Parker said.
“The words of encouragement is to show that human connection and that they have someone that cares about them and is thinking of them and is wishing the best for them,” Parker said. “We keep it very open so that people can connect in their own personal way.”
In order to get the bags to the homeless, Parker and people who worked with him in the beginning created a map of where the homeless could be during the day and in the night due to restrictions from Columbia ordinances. Parker said they meet a lot of the same people through this track.
One homeless man who benefitted from receiving a buddy pack, Rick, told another person about Parker’s organization.
“A guy stopped me yesterday,” Parker said. “He said, ‘I heard you’re the guy giving the backpacks out. I need one of those. I identified you by your hair.”
Parker said having a selfless attitude is key to his interactions with the homeless community. He said he wants his organization to focus on those they serve.
“We don’t get the reward or the certificate for doing it,” Parker said. “It’s something that you do because it’s something you should do, helping our fellow mankind. This is an opportunity to have people interact with the community they’ve probably never interacted with.”
So far, Parker has seen a lot of support from individual students. He said he hopes to see more attention and support around the issue.
“I hope to see more students connected,” Parker said. “We have this humongous university with all these students and Columbia has actually a very, very high homeless rate as far as in comparison to the size and because it’s a commuter city.”
Groups in Seattle, Kansas City and Chicago have reached out to Parker that now implement the buddy packs in their own communities.
“What we’re doing is every group that contacts, we’re operationalizing them to do the buddy packs, how to do it, lay out the whole entire process,” Parker said.
Parker said making a difference in the homeless people’s lives doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Students can donate items they no longer use, such as bags.
“The reason behind my organization is to operationalize students to cut the middle man out as far as connecting with our homeless community,” Parker said. “You have stuff you want to donate? Pack it up and take it out there. Have human connections, meet with those people, learn about them. We don’t need these formal methods. We can take what we have to offer that’s of use and go.”
In addition to donating items that are not in use, students can also donate money or their time by participating in packing parties. If anyone is interested in more information, Parker said, they can contact him directly on Facebook or through his email.
“The more collaboration, the more effort, the more things we can do for the community,” Parker said.