Addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness with dignity

A masked volunteer arranges personal care items for the homeless on a table.

The Dignity Pack Project supplies people experiencing homelessness in Atlanta with basic hygiene supplies, period supplies, condoms, and PPE. The project, which began in August 2020, has provided approximately 800 “Dignity Packs” to a population with increasing needs during COVID-19 in a short time. The project was conceptualized and is run by three Rollins students: Alison Hoover, second-year global health MPH student; April Ballard, PhD candidate in environmental health sciences; and Ana Rodriguez, second-year global environmental health MPH student. 

Hoover was recognized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute and Bayer in the fall of 2019 as a “120 Under 40: The New Generation of Family Planning Leader.” Because of this recognition, she was eligible to apply for funding from the Gates Institute for Population & Reproductive Health and Bayer to carry out a project on population and reproductive health. 

The students use the grant money to buy supplies in bulk from Costco, Target, and Amazon. In-kind and cash donations also have come from local organizations, friends, and family. Hoover’s apartment serves as an unofficial warehouse. 

“Supplies have been adjusted over time to adapt to the shifting realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more importantly, based on systematically collected feedback from those experiencing homelessness,”explains Hoover.

Distribution typically happens at places where partner organizations such as SafeHouse Outreach are serving food to Atlanta’s homeless population. The Dignity Pack Project team sets up a table where people can “shop” for the type and number of items they want. Product kits are not prepackaged so that people can select items depending on their preferences and needs. “This presents a humanist, rights-based approach to harm-reduction efforts among people experiencing homelessness,” Hoover says. 

Recognizing this great work, the Dignity Pack Project recently won a 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award. The award honors the legacy of Dr. King and the mission and values of public health with the precepts of social justice. 

Hoover says, “When we talk about our responsibility as public health practitioners, this is an example of where a basic survival need and the human right to exist is not being met. It feels ignored, important, and urgent. The Dignity Pack Project is harm-reduction focused; it is recognizing that people have basic needs for their survival and dignity and just focuses on that.”

In the long-term, the team hopes for more funding for organizations and entities that are trying to support those experiencing homelessness, as well as institutional-supportive policies and funding for people to stay fed, warm, and clean when they please. “It’s been beautiful to see people in Atlanta welcome us. There’s a lot of rightful mistrust in communities that are low income and the ones hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, so I think one of the best things about the project has been the community’s willingness to invite us in as if we are their next-door neighbors,” Ballard says.