Mike Simms is no stranger to the elements. Between volunteering with the Forest Service, curating the Echo Mountain ruins and running Friends of Echo Mountain, a local preservationist group, Simms spends each of his days hiking the trails of the San Gabriel Mountains above Altadena. It was during these hikes that Simms realized he was sharing the forest with more than wildlife creatures and other outdoor enthusiasts: A number of homeless individuals were seeking shelter in the area as well. Fully aware of the bone-chilling overnight temperatures in the Angeles National Forest, he began to donate his used equipment and warm outdoor clothing to those he encountered.
“Hikers tend to have a lot of extra gear, because we get new gear all the time, so I thought, why not give some of my old gear to someone who could really use it?” Simms said. “Then I had the idea that if I had all this extra gear, probably most hikers have a lot of stuff they could give away, and it would help a lot of people down in town.”
Simms approached the folks at Friends in Deed, a local nonprofit that provides housing, food and shelter services to Pasadena’s homeless population, and devised an event to bring the resources of the hiking community to the city’s most vulnerable residents. On Sunday, dozens of hikers heeded that call to action at “Hike for the Homeless,” an equipment drive held at the trailhead of Altadena’s Cobb Estate. The event was promoted via the Friends of Echo Mountain Facebook page, where it quickly gained interest among hikers from Pasadena and across Los Angeles.
The first donors arrived before the event was even set to begin at 8 a.m. Volunteers from Friends in Deed had barely set up their booth and parked their box truck when early birds, bearing sleeping bags, pads, tents and backpacks, began loading it up. Over the course of the next few hours, the bounty grew as other hikers dropped off used gear before heading off onto the trail. Cars pulled up filled with bags of coats, jackets, thermals and other winter clothing. Some hikers who were unaware of the event stopped by the booth to make monetary donations. Others inquired about volunteer opportunities.
“This is our first event that’s been 100% social media-driven, and the response so far has been amazing,” said Friends in Deed Board President Richard Cheung as a second wave of hikers and contributions arrived. “For me, it’s about these new exciting relationships, because we’re one of these homegrown organizations in Pasadena that is very impactful with our programs. The more people know about what we do in their own backyard, the more impactful we become.”
“We had a really good turnout right away,” said Tim Nistler, who manages Friends in Deed’s food pantry and was helping load up the donations. “The fact that they’re already donating all this, not only shows that the hikers care, but also that they understand what’s needed. Hikers and people who spend a lot of time outdoors spend a lot time in good and bad weather, so they know the difficulties that people can face if they have to live outside, and they understand the need for good, warm gear.”
The clothing and gear donated at the event will go to Friends in Deed’s bad weather shelter, a weather-activated service that operates each year between late November and early March. When the temperature drops below 40 degrees or there’s a 40% or greater chance of rain, the shelter opens in the Pasadena Covenant Church gymnasium, where those seeking refuge receive a cot, a blanket, a hot meal and a place to stay for the night. Much of the donated equipment will be distributed directly from the shelter to those in need, while the clothing can be used immediately to provide for those coming into the shelter with a dry change of clothes.
El Niño storms have already brought a surge in demand for such services this year, said William Shelby, director of the bad weather shelter.
“So far this year, we’ve been open almost 10 more days than we were last year for the whole season,” he said. “We’re anticipating maybe being open longer into March. We’re predicted to have a longer, wetter season than we’ve had in a great many years, so that’s one of the reasons why this drive is so important.”
As the donations kept coming, it became clear that word of the event had brought together hikers from a diverse cross-section of the community. La Salle High School students Lauren Chacon and Patrick Madden, who carried armfuls of sleeping bags and pads up from their parking spot down the road, found out about the drive from their school hiking club. Pasadena resident Deborah Hori heard an announcement on public radio.
“I always like opportunities to help people less fortunate, and I had extra things that were just sitting collecting dust in my garage, so I’d rather have somebody using it,” Hori said as she unloaded several sleeping bags and heavy duty backpacks from her Prius. “I’m a hiker and I have extra stuff, so I might as well share it.”
In addition to a tax deduction, donors each received a coupon for 20% off the purchase of new gear at REI. The Arcadia branch of the recreational outfitter also donated 50 high-end sleeping bags and sleeping pads, all of which are returned products that have seen barely any use. Used sleeping bags cannot be resold in California, so rather than being shipped out of state and sold at used gear outlets, the generous donations will stay locally, where their quality and warmth can make a real difference to those at the mercy of the elements.
“Of course, our first goal is we want to end homelessness, but we don’t want that to end by someone freezing to death,” said the Rev. Donna Byrns, Friends in Deed’s executive director. “We want to get them housing, but in the interim if we can support them and give them a center of well-being, it’s easier for them to cope with their circumstances until we can get them housed. The hikers have responded amazingly and generously, and between having big hearts and great equipment, I think this is going to be an amazing thing for our work, for our community and for bringing us all together.”
Additional donations are still welcome and encouraged. For more information on how to support Friends in Deed and its programs, visit friendsindeedpas.org.