An entrepreneur takes his university’s service ideals to the streets of Los Angeles to comfort the homeless.
by Paula Byron
It began with a drive through the nation’s capital one frigid winter evening. Minutes after passing the White House and the Treasury Building, Tom Bagamane could see homeless men and women, their shapes nearly indistinguishable in the shadows, huddled for warmth on the city’s steam grates. Suddenly Bagamane felt a surge of fury.
“Here I was, surrounded by great monuments to democracy in one of the richest countries on earth,” he says. “And yet people were freezing. I thought, enough!”
Bagamane turned to a fellow Hokie—his sister, Kalpana, an industrial engineering graduate—for ideas. Together they returned to the darkened street. There they draped wool blankets over the sleeping forms, placed food and water nearby, and disappeared into the cold night.
“When those people awoke,” Bagamane says, “we wanted them to realize that someone had tucked them in, left them nourishment, and cared about them.”
The Help of Friends
The memory of that long-ago night never left Bagamane, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1983 with a degree in communication and political science. In 1999, three years after making Los Angeles his home, Bagamane founded The Giving Spirit, a nonprofit that provides the homeless with survival assistance for life on the streets.
Los Angeles has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States, with nearly 50,000 displaced people countywide, most of whom are unsheltered.
The Giving Spirit launched with four volunteers. Now one of the largest all-volunteer organizations in the country, it has already engaged more than 13,000 volunteers in helping nearly 45,000 men, women, and children living on the streets.
Powered by all those helping hands, The Giving Spirit buys goods in bulk from discount stores, collects donated items from manufacturers and distributors, and assembles and delivers survival kits to the homeless from Skid Row to Santa Monica and the valleys beyond. Each kit contains dozens of individual items, including sunscreen, socks, pillows, and protection from the weather. The kits are seasonal, with backpacks tailored for summer and duffel bags for winter.
“At a time they feel the most alone, we provide them with food, water, blankets, clothing, toiletries and, most important of all, hope,” Bagamane says. “We’re always told, ‘Before you came, I had no idea where my next meal was coming from,’ or, ‘I thought I’d been forgotten. Thanks so much for remembering me.’”
Bringing It Home
It’s the outreach part of its mission, Bagamane says, that makes The Giving Spirit such an excellent teaching tool for families. “Volunteering with us teaches people not to stereotype others based on where they live,” he says. “Their hands-on experiences make homelessness real to kids and parents alike.”
Bagamane says he, too, has had an awareness shift. “The homeless population of L.A. includes more babies, single mothers with kids, and teens than I’d realized,” he says. “Many are working parents who live in cars, tents, or boxes. They don’t litter or fuss; their kids attend school. Or they’re veterans who served their country. But society has cast them aside. It’s terrible we allow this to happen.” The Giving Spirit is always finding new challenges, Bagamane adds. “Recently, a friend and I spent a day hearing about struggles on the street. To our dismay, even with a returning economy, we found many folks who had been recently displaced, with nowhere to turn. Many are eager to return to the workforce but can’t find employment. Others have been turned away by an overloaded system. Those with jobs can’t afford to rent in one of the world’s most expensive cities.”
“I’m a capitalist by day and a philanthropist by night,” Bagamane says. He began his career in the retail industry, with emphases on product development, sales, and marketing. Eventually, he followed his entrepreneurial instincts by launching two highly successful pet product companies, both of which have since been sold. All told, he has participated in branding and launching more than 40 consumer products sold around the world.
Even his commercial ventures have included a greater-good component; with his second company, he established the pet food industry’s first “buy one, give one” profitable social-business platform.
More recently, Bagamane serves as managing director of the Profitable Good Group, which helps businesses implement social-impact strategies.
“We looked at corporate social responsibility and knew from experience that social change can have legs only if it’s tied to a company’s bottom line,” he says. “We help companies define a purpose that brings shared value—one embedded in their financial statements—as a strategy to guarantee sustainability in the good they’re achieving.”
At Your Service
Bagamane says that Virginia Tech’s motto—Ut Prosim (That I May Serve)—resonates with him. “We’re given opportunities every day to make a difference in other people’s lives,” he says. “When I founded The Giving Spirit, I thought, if this helps just one person, it will be worthwhile. It’s since helped tens of thousands of people. But what I didn’t envision is how the work would return so much richness to me, and to all our volunteers, especially the kids. We’re simply caretakers of children’s future. They can choose to eradicate homelessness if we create awareness now.”
The most rewarding part, Bagamane says, is the time spent with people living on the street. “When they start opening up to us,” he says, “it’s like watching snow melt off a beautiful tree that’s been covered for so long. When you learn their life stories, it can take your breath away.”