Episode 8: The advocate whose social media followers are helping him help the homeless

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Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Since the pandemic began to affect Allegheny County, Lorenzo Ruilli has been hiking under bridges and through urban brush to help the homeless. On this episode, learn how he is putting together bags of food and hygiene products and why he does it.

JOURDAN HICKS: On any given day in Allegheny County, nearly 800 people are experiencing homelessness. For many, self-isolating is the norm. The city’s shelters are open but some folks don’t want to go there. They are afraid they’ll be exposed to the virus or they’re more comfortable in a camp. These are the people Lorenzo Ruilli (RUE-lee) is trying to reach.

CLIP: “You need a bag? OK...”

JOURDAN HICKS: Since the pandemic-related shutdowns began, Lorenzo has been borrowing his sister’s car and going to the places he knows the camps are. They are often in hard-to-reach places, out of sight from the general public. He brings along bags filled with essentials: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, water, deodorant, hand sanitizer — all donated by Lorenzo’s more than 5,000 social media followers.

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CLIP: “So we stopped past a few places and we were able to give out about seven bags to the women already. And now we’re just trying to get rid of the last couple bags, make sure the folks, they get what they need. Then I have a drop-off at a camp, which I’m having a hard time finding but I’m going to get over there and then I’m done for the day….”

JOURDAN HICKS: Anything he doesn’t hand out Lorenzo uses to fill Blessing Boxes — small, usually homemade structures where people leave stuff for others to pick up anonymously.

CLIP: “I’m so excited I love these little boxes. Take what you need, give what you can. So that’s a clear sign telling me, fill it up. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re about to fill it up. . . let me get this bag here.”

JOURDAN HICKS: Lorenzo has been doing street outreach in the city for about two years. He is an independent advocate - not connected to any official organization or nonprofit - and his efforts are completely funded by the people he connects with on his social media platforms.

CLIP: “Hello my beautiful people. How are y’all doing? I want to show you guys all the super amazing stuff that we have to fill all of these bags.. And I wanted to say thank you to everyone who donated…Over here we have blankets. Shout out to Amanda. Last time I was out there they were super excited about the blankets. The weather is crazy. It’s like up and down. So I am going to try my best to make sure everyone gets a blanket...(fade talking)”

JOURDAN HICKS: Right now, Lorenzo is living with his sister, Lashawna Richards, and her baby daughter. On Sunday, Mother’s Day, the three of them went to check out the waterfall in the Beechview Seldom-Seen Greenway.

CLIP: “Happy Mother’s Day….check this out. Baby wants to go play in that water!”

JOURDAN HICKS: Lashawna is a nurse and she’s been busy lately. Lorenzo watches his niece while she’s at work. In exchange, she lets her brother use her car to do his outreach. And helps him pack the bags, too. Lawshana says her brother has always put himself out there trying to help the people who need it most. His motivation to do it is very personal to him. Here’s his story.

LORENZO RUILLI: So my name is Lorenzo Ruilli. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I live in the South Side area right now. I am an activist and advocate for the homeless folks on the streets in the city of Pittsburgh.

CLIP: So I'm actually going to a camp right now. There's a couple folks camped out.

When they announced the city was closing down, I decided to go out and see if there was a need for meals. That was my direct response. Feed the people.

LORENZO: I got bags of stuff. There's a bottle of water, toilet paper, snacks in there.

DAVID: Thank you.

LORENZO: Yeah, no worries man. What's your name?

DAVID: David.

LORENZO: I'm Lorenzo, David.

DAVID: Lorenzo, you have a good day.

LORENZO: All right. Take it easy, man.

LORENZO: When I got out there, I really quickly realized that the food was top priority. Everyone needs a hot meal, something to drink. But then I realized that there weren't hygiene products circulating on the streets because every street outreach was shut down. So I decided to take action. I went on social media. And I begged.

CLIP: If you wanna spend your stimulus money, what I like to call that hush money - all you have to say is, ‘Hey, how can I help?’ And I'll give you a list. I'll give you links.

LORENZO: And immediately the response was insane. I got bags donated. I got food donated. I got gift cards donated. And within the first week, I was able to give out 20 bags and then 40 bags the following. And this week, coming up, we're doing 60. [12.9s]

CLIP: Hello, people. We are making sandwiches. And my sister here is on the floor. I can't show you all my sister because I can't grab my phone. But she is on the floor and she is prepping bags. How many bags you got down there?

LORENZO: The people in this city really came and showed love for a complete stranger regarding this homeless crisis, especially right now when they know that they're not often out handing out change and buying meals for folks. So it was really beautiful.

CLIP: This is the bags. Hand sanitizer goes in every bag. Every last one of these 60 bags goes out today.

LORENZO: So inside of every bag that we distribute to someone on the streets, there are snack bags, a drink, there are crackers, a source of protein goes into every bag, every time. Other things that go into the bags, especially for our women, feminine hygiene products, things that the women need to make sure that they're taking care of themselves. You have a razor in this bag. You have toothbrush, toothpaste in this bag. You have a disposable water bottle and you have a reusable water bottle. The final thing that goes into the bag is basically deodorant. We make sure everybody has deodorant and soap bars. The bags are never small. [34.6s]

I regularly meet a lot of men who are actually very afraid of the coronavirus. Unfortunately, a lot of folks on the street have pre-existing conditions, whether they are compromising conditions or not, they are high risk. So being that, they're high risk, I specifically have three individuals and a woman who will not go to shelters because of that. They also will not camp at campsites with multiple people because of those same situations. So a lot of people are afraid and figuring out how to stay socially distant. But then you have to consider these folks depend on each other for support. So when we're pushing them further away to be safe, they're getting less and less support from one another. Specifically, one gentleman, he's a veteran. He will not go to a shelter. He will not go to a camp. He is literally sleeping anywhere that is alone. And he just feels that’s the safest bet for him. He doesn't even want folks like me to come to where he sleeps because he's afraid that the possibility and with his condition could be fatal for him.

Currently, I've met and dealt with over 500 people, different faces.

CLIP: I'm uptown. There's a group right over here by the stadium and I take them some fresh hot pizzas.

LORENZO: It's a matter of walking. Sometimes I get out and I walk for an hour and a half because everyone's not on the main road. A lot of folks are camped out behind a building, in an alleyway, under a bridge. You can't drive to those places. So I have to park the car and go for a walk for an hour and a half. And I do. The legs hurt, but the bags are gone. I have nothing. Every time I pull back up to my house. [21.9s]

CLIP: The sandwiches were a huge hit. Everybody wanted a peanut butter and jelly. I gave pretty much all away. I have about four or five left that I'm making sure I'm getting rid of down here.

LORENZO: The issue that really made me focus a lot on homelessness in Pittsburgh because of coronavirus is that on March 13, the mayor of the city actually announced the state of emergency for the city of Pittsburgh. When he announced that, he forgot to announce that homeless folks depend on the city of Pittsburgh to regularly be full of people.

So when that actually stopped, and when businesses shut down a few weeks later, every person that lives on a street had to really figure out where they're going to not only panhandle for money, but they're going to also have to focus on where they're going to be able to sleep, where they're going to be able to eat. And now the biggest crisis that I honestly see is the bathroom crisis. They have no bathrooms. So now we have streets like Fourth Avenue becoming public bathrooms.

CLIP: (Lorenzo) I am down here at the park, across from the Light of Life and the Martin Luther King school grounds and I still got bags to give away. So I'm gonna swing past this camp on the shoreline, drop off these bags.

(man in background): Thank you for the toilet paper.

(LORENZO): No problem. I hope you use it.

(man in background): Now I can shit in the park.

(LORENZO): Take it easy, guy. Thank you to every single person that reached out and donated. Thank you to my sister for allowing me to use a car so I could help people today….

LORENZO: The reason why, I guess, street outreach is so important to me is because I grew up in shelters in the city of Pittsburgh. So I actually lived in a shelter in downtown Pittsburgh. And not only did I go outside and see the folks on the street next door to me begging for change, but I also was very much near being those folks. So in my life, I saw it so frequently. I lived in four shelters in the city of Pittsburgh. So I knew very closely what it was like, the experience in how I could become a part of that experience.

Honestly, in my experience as a child who grew up in shelters and in this city as a low-income child, I feel that my position in a shelter was...we experienced it in a good way because not only was it a stepping stone for my mother who was escaping an abusive relationship, but it was also an opportunity for us to get into a better position.

My activism began during the Antwon Rose protests in the city.

It basically woke me up. I was silent because I thought I could be. When I realized that I couldn't be and I shouldn't be, it woke me up. And that's kind of where the whole voice came from. And it turned into a voice for the people. All the people.

The new poverty is privileged and I mean that in a lot of ways. But what's going to happen is the folks that never had to experience suffering or crisis like homelessness are about to become the new poverty. Myself included. We are all at risk to be the next homeless man or woman on the side of the street. Every single person in America is in crisis. Homeless folks that live on the street are in a crisis every day, every day outside of COVID-19. So what you don't understand is simply what you don't know. If you sat down and you gave them a conversation, you would know they have mental illness. A lot of the folks on the street are actually vets who served our country, fought for our rights to be free, and they're living on the streets. A lot of these women are single mothers who fell into hard times. And instead of a system set to help, they actually hurt. So really, just consider when you see someone on the street, could that be you and ask them honestly, ‘Hey, how'd you get here?’ And you'll learn so much. But it truly is more about just completely putting that to the side, considering that it is possible before you say I'm better than that person. We all could be homeless. [71.0s]

CLIP: Hello, my beautiful people. What I want to show everybody is this bag right here I just picked up. For starters, the note in the bag is so nice and it's really, like, handwritten. This is from the individuals that sewed these here masks that I just picked up. Now, these masks were given to me, as you see on the note, was for the folks that I meet on the streets. And yeah, I really appreciate it. [24.8s]

JOURDAN HICKS: You can find more info about Lorenzo’s efforts - and support him if you wish - through Facebook and Instagram. Find him at @iamlorenzoruilli. He says he appreciates anything from a financial donation to a Slim Jim.

This podcast was produced by Andy Kubis and edited by Mila Sanina and Halle Stockton. If you have a story you'd like to share, get in touch with us. You can text a voice memo to 412-432-9669. Or email it to jourdan@publicsource.org.

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