Like many a holiday traveler, 25-year-old Alexandra Collins-Lee and her family will be loading up a mound of gifts and heading out of town on Christmas Eve.
But instead of spending the holiday opening presents around the tree, her family has its own Christmas Eve tradition that includes heading into the grittiest parts of San Francisco — including stops in the Tenderloin and a mishmash of shantytowns they’ve discovered over time. They go to places Santa Claus might miss.
The Montara family searches for homeless people walking the streets. Then they hand strangers sizable gift bags filled with basic necessities, like blankets, warm clothes and snacks. If their new friend wants to talk, they talk. In the end, they wish the recipient a merry Christmas, and drive on to find someone else who could use a bag.
For the last nine years, Christmas Eve has been the finale of a year-round project spearheaded by Collins-Lee. She knows her one-day handout is no panacea for what ails the homeless population. Instead, her goal is more emotional. She wants to make the destitute feel appreciated during what can be the loneliest time of the year.
“It’s the holidays. We just want to let you know that someone cares about you,” she explained. “I don’t want to get in people’s faces. I just want to do what our family can to extend what we have to someone else.”
Her parents were her inspiration. They weren’t rich, but made a point of being conscious of the plight of others during Christmastime, she said. Gifts from her parents could be a donation to a wildlife fund or a public-broadcasting membership. One year, her father gave out lottery tickets to the homeless, she recalled. Building off that idea, her father tried to rally the family to hand out $20 bills to the homeless they encountered, but a friend who worked in drug counseling later advised that was a bad idea, Collins-Lee said. A much better way to help the homeless was to give them basic necessities, they were told.
The project took hold when Collins-Lee was a senior at Half Moon Bay High School. In the first year, she assembled 10 bags with basic supplies, like clothes and food, and carpooled with her parents up to San Francisco to hand them out.
After that initial year, the project grew. She set the goal to add 10 more bags each year, and she’s mostly kept that pledge. Her main collaborator was her then-boyfriend Jesse Lee, whom she married last year. The family had a little setback this year, but they still put together 80 bags.
“It was originally a small little project, but now she spends half the year on this,” said her sister, Jennifer Collins. “It’s the most thoughtful bag you’ve ever seen. I tell her I would love to have one of these bags.”
Collins-Lee isn’t wealthy, but she isn’t impoverished either. She works as a part-time nanny while pursuing graduate studies at San Francisco State University with the goal to be a special-education teacher. Her husband works as a resource specialist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Menlo Park, a job that primarily involves helping former soldiers struggling to find work. The couple shares the upstairs portion of a Montara house rented out to them by Lee’s parents.
On Friday, the couple invited the Review to come by to see the gift-bag operation in progress. Stacked boxes of scarves, socks, gloves and other items lined the walls as if in some retail warehouse. They also had food packs, cosmetic items, first-aid kits and water bottles.
None of those items were donated; the couple paid for them with some help from family. Throughout the year, they look out for bargains on large quantities of items for the bags. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, was a bonanza for finding great deals, she said. After hearing about her project, employees at Twice as Nice in Half Moon Bay and other stores would sometimes hint when a good deal came up for sale. In the end, a single gift bag usually costs about $30, she estimated.
They begin the arduous task of assembling and wrapping all 80 gift bags over the weekend. On Christmas Eve, they plan to load up their mountain of presents for the trip in their Toyota hatchback. They expect to need another car to lug everything and everyone around and enlisted four family members to help, Lee said. After doing this for several years, they have a circuit of transient encampments to visit in San Francisco.
In past years, the gift handout went remarkably well. The homeless recipients represented the full spectrum of personalities — some were friendly, others clearly had psychological problems. One year, Lee remembered his car breaking down, and a team of homeless men helped push the vehicle until it could get in gear.
“It’s a lot of normal folks who are down on their luck,” he said. “They’re an interesting group. They’re down on their luck, but they’re still willing to help each other out.”
Collins-Lee isn’t entirely sure how her gift-bag project will develop. She said she’s never even bothered to give it a permanent name. For a while, she thought about calling it “Hope for the Holidays,” but she usually refers to it simply as the “gift bags.” She likes the idea of expanding it into a nonprofit, but she also delights in the intimacy of keeping it as a family project.
“My whole life I have been taught to be grateful for what we have,” she said. “Going out on Christmas is our way of showing there’s other people in the world.”