It was cold and rainy the morning that a quartet of bicyclists rode out, covering 12 miles across Louisville and carting more than 200 pounds of homemade breakfast burritos.
They began at 8:30 a.m., working their way through all the homeless shelters in downtown Louisville, stopping to talk to anyone they met.
On this morning, Louisville’ Burrito Riders are delivering breakfast to the city’s homeless community—and, they hope, much more than mere sustenance.
Founder Tim Adkins says he first conceived the idea after reading about a similar group in North Carolina called the Burrito Bikers. Adkins, a member of Revolution Church on Bluegrass Parkway, said that he had been looking for a way to serve the community, but nothing he tried seemed to stick. By creating the Burrito Riders, he was trying to break down boundaries for people who wanted to serve.
Adkins says that the process is designed to allow volunteers ultimate ease of access. If they can’t make it to the regular rides, they can cook burritos. If they don’t have time to cook, they can donate ingredients, money, resources, bike parts, or store hundreds of burritos in their freezers until the morning of the ride.
Sometimes riders drop out last minute. Sometimes they have to scramble to have enough burritos to hand out. Sometimes the weather is bad. Sometimes riders’ spouses try to dissuade them from taking off in snow or rain storms.
The Burrito Riders meet at 8:30 a.m. at the Kroger on Goss Avenue on the first and third Saturdays of each month. As riders unload bikes off of bike racks and strap on helmets, volunteers arrive with cars full of burritos.
They’ve had a year to perfect their strategy for transportation, distribution, and communication with Louisville’s homeless population.
When the Burrito Riders first started, it took three hours and six riders to distribute 10 burritos. Now, Adkins says 250 burritos exchange hands per ride. It could be hundreds more depending on the day. They are loaded in bags, boxes, coolers and trailers.
There were more challenges in the beginning than transportation confusion. Many homeless are suspicious of free food because it might be tampered with. Rider Curtis Thrush says it takes time and consistency to gain the community’s trust.
“They watched people eat the burritos we gave out, saw that it was OK, and then started to ask us a lot of questions,” Thrush said, “You could see the doubt start to melt away a bit and then they finally started to come around.”
‘The Burrito is Really Just an Excuse’
Stephanie Greathouse, a regular rider, befriended a woman at one of the shelters and makes sure to check in on each ride. She says the obstacles faced by the homeless and working poor are numerous: mental illness as well as chronic injury and sickness prevent people from finding steady work.
Greathouse says it’s important to seek equal footing with the people they meet and build trust. They’ve become an anticipated presence at the shelters.
“On an equal level, it’s a personal interaction,” Greathouse says. “They don’t feel like we’re handing out to have-nots at all. They have a desperate need immediately.”
Greathouse says that friends often ask if she’s afraid during the rides, something she finds impossible. “Why would I be afraid to just go talk to someone I don’t know?” she says.
This is exactly what Adkins say he wanted. Feeding the homeless and impoverished is important, but making a connection is just as important, he says.
Determining the scope of need in Louisville was another challenge. Adkins says that when he first started out, he had very little understanding of the issue of homelessness. The first rides were crash courses in what to do and what not to do to maintain effective communication.
He says the homeless have needs that many people don’t realize go unmet.
They need more than food.
In addition to burritos and water bottles, the Riders now give out hygiene kits and clothing. Adkins says that as the group’s immersion in the community grows, so does their awareness of issues plaguing the impoverished community.
“The burrito is really just an excuse,” Adkins says. “The burrito is a way for us to get in front of people and connect with them and really just show them some respect. You’re dealing with a population that’s horrendously marginalized. These folks are not that different from us. We are all one catastrophic event out of the gutter.”