Four-year-old Anaya Agarwal extends a helping hand to her homeless neighbors

By Deirdre Newman

Preschooler Anaya Agarwal delivers sack lunches and cheer to the residents of a homeless encampment on Rose and Seventh avenues in Venice
(Photos by Shilah Montiel)

While most four-year-old girls are content to explore the make-believe worlds of fairytale princesses, Anaya Agarwal is focused squarely on a reality that many adults choose to ignore. She’s dedicated to feeding the homeless.

For the past several weeks, the Santa Monica preschooler has been a smiling presence on sidewalks in Venice where the homeless congregate, making daily visits to encampments behind the Whole Foods grocery store on Lincoln Boulevard and Rose Avenue.

Anaya’s mission to feed the homeless in Venice dovetails with broader efforts to house them. The Los Angeles City Council recently approved plans by Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman Mike Bonin to erect temporary housing for 100 homeless adults and 54 homeless youth at the former Metro bus yard on Pacific Avenue.

Opponents fear the new facility, intended to move local homeless out of encampments, will end up drawing even more homeless to streets already crowded with tents and sleeping bags. Many of the homeless sleeping in Venice say recent enforcement efforts to keep encampments off the beach have “swept” them from the boardwalk to nearby places like the largely residential area behind Whole Foods.

But Anaya is not aware of all that. And she doesn’t know why so many people become homeless, or why so many have to wear clothes that are dirty. But her laser-like focus on making sure the homeless have enough to eat is inspiring, said her father, Karan Agarwal, who takes her on her daily rounds. He said Anaya has abandoned activities she used to do with her parents, such as going to the park to play, in favor of making and distributing meals for the homeless.

Why help? “Because they need help,” Anaya says. Why meals? “Because they are homeless and can’t do it [for themselves],” she says.

Anaya started just before Thanksgiving and plans to give out 1,000 meals by January.

“There is no barrier to helping the homeless,” said Karan Agarwal, a logistics consultant. “Children don’t see barriers.”

With the help of her father Karan and family (Photo by corcoranphoto), Anaya brings hope as well as food to homeless men and women (Photo by Shilah Montiel)

Inspired to Share

Anaya attends preschool at the Growing Place in Santa Monica. Her father leads a hot lunch committee at the school that organizes parent volunteers to create and serve meals once a month to the 85 students and teachers there. The school charges $64 a year for all the hot lunches, but if a student’s family can’t afford that the school covers the cost.

After the last hot lunch in early November, which featured ramen noodles, Anaya asked her father what the school would do with the food that wasn’t eaten. He suggested giving out the leftovers to homeless people on the beach. Anaya frequently would offer to share her lunch with the homeless at the beach in Santa Monica on the weekends, so he figured she’d be excited about the prospect. Which she was.

For the homeless in Venice, Anaya typically prepares brown bag lunches that contain a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carrot sticks, an orange or tangerine and a bottle of water, plus a toothbrush and toothpaste “so they don’t get cavities,” Anaya says. She first reaches out to family members with requests for money to purchase the ingredients for the meals, then asks friends and neighbors.

‘Good Heart, Good Values’

When Anaya and her father first approach a homeless encampment, they tread lightly, looking to see who’s open to receiving their food. Anaya always asks first, “Would you like a sandwich?”

On a recent Saturday, a homeless man named Chris and his fiancée Erin both said “Yes.” They’ve been camped out on the sidewalk behind Whole Foods for a while; Chris has been homeless since August. He’s a home framer who had gotten in trouble in the Midwest, served time in prison, and decided to head west in search of opportunity after his release.

For Chris, being homeless in L.A. got off to a rocky start. When he was first living on the streets in downtown Los Angeles, Chris was attacked
and sent to a hospital in Culver City. Then he was sent to a wellness center and referred to some local social service organizations in Venice.

He and Erin expressed appreciation for Anaya and her effort to help.

“I think children are our future,” said Chris, 41, who declined to give his last name. “There’s lots to be healed through loving kindness and the eyes of a child. Our spirits need to be fed.”

Another appreciative recipient was also named Chris. He’s 56 and also declined to give his last name. He’s been homeless for a little more than a year, after he got out of prison and could not find a job. He wears a patch over an eye that he lost while in prison.

The elder Chris first stayed with family in the Santa Monica area, but they were asking him to pay more in rent than he could afford at the time. He had been working as a butcher. He complimented Anaya on her “good heart, good values and good etiquette.”

Next was a lady who goes by the name Sparkle, 44, with a spacious tent where a friend was sleeping. She praised Anaya and her father for treating the homeless “like humans, not like a freak show.”

“They don’t know the circumstances as to why we’re here,” she said, alluding to those who make generalizations about the homeless population.

Sparkle became homeless in the Midwest, after the death of her husband. She’s a cosmetologist and said she’d like to get back to work, but has to wait until she recovers from an injury on her hand.

Partnerships in Service

As it turns out, Anaya is carrying on a lineage of service to people in need that started with her great-grandmother,
who used to organize food camps in India. She was a freedom fighter who did her part in India’s effort to gain independence from the British, Karan Agarwal said. She later ran a bagel shop in Jersey City and would never turn away a customer if they couldn’t afford to buy something, he said.

To supplement her efforts, Anaya has formed a partnership with her favorite restaurant, La Vecchi Cucina on Main Street in Santa Monica. Restaurant general manager Thao Tran helps Anaya collect the restaurant’s unused food, which Anaya and her dad then deliver to an interim housing facility on 16th Street in Santa Monica, where homeless people stay until they are moved into more permanent housing.

The People Concern, a local homeless assistance organization, is helping Anaya coordinate this particular effort.

Anaya’s preschool director is also encouraging her efforts by allowing Anaya to place a donation bin on school grounds, where she then encourages her classmates to donate food and help her deliver it to the homeless.

The local Whole Foods management team has also supported Anaya’s efforts by giving her discounts on items purchased for her outreach.

Karan Agarwal says that he isn’t sure how big their outreach will get, or how exactly it will expand.

“Regardless of what direction it goes, I am proud that Anaya is trying to help our community and bring some humanity back to people who are in a difficult situation,” he said.