By Nancy Price
Several years ago, Thomas “Tag” Griffin, a Garfield Park resident, read a Facebook post from a friend requesting help to move a group of local homeless people; they were facing eviction from the state and needed a new place to reside. More than 60 potential volunteers signed up to help.
Griffin was the only one to show.
Since then, he and his wife, Gina founded a nonprofit called Hearts in Hand. They, along with Gina’s sister Mandy and countless volunteers, have served hot, homemade meals on a weekly basis and on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The first Thanksgiving was hosted in 2017 at Victory Field and served 200. As well, more than 200 women’s coasts were handed out to those in need. The following year, 300 were served and last year, more than 400 were served. The owner of The Meat Shop of Indianapolis donates turkeys and a local motorcycle group assists with donations.
They also donate clothing, firewood, tents, bus passes and have helped people with getting their medication and to rehab. If a person is able to obtain housing, Griffin and Gina will sometimes help with utilities.
The nonprofit is non-faith based for a reason, explained Griffin. When those living on the streets learn that, “they’ll open up more,” he said. “We’re recovering addicts, we’re non-judgmental and a lot of them respect us. I’m OK with faith-based (organizations). God knows we’re doing His work and that’s all that matters.”
A lifelong Indianapolis resident, Griffin found joy in serving others while volunteering with the Muscular Dystrophy Association when he was in high school. “I worked at one of the (summer) camps,” he said. “I knew I was helping someone and that made me feel good. “I’ve always liked to help people. If I can make a person smile, I’ve done by good deed for the day. (Volunteering) is very contagious.”
Every Friday night, Gina picks up 40 pounds of chicken donated by The Meat Shop of Indianapolis. The next day, she starts cooking meals around noon and at 6 p.m., leaves with Griffin, Mandy and other volunteers to start serving the meals. Anywhere from 80 to 150 people are assisted with meals each week.
“We don’t say we feed the homeless, we serve the homeless,” Griffin stated. “(The homeless people) are like, ‘What are you feeding me?’ I say, no, I’m serving. To me, it’s dignity to say ‘serving.’”
Griffin and Gina addressed the myths some believe about the homeless population.
“That they aren’t grateful,” Gina said. Every single one we serve a plate is very grateful.”
“That all are thieves and alcoholics and drug addicts, or they don’t want to work,” Griffin added. “I like to let my friends know we’re no different than them,” he said. “Some are homeless due to job loss, domestic violence or depression. There’s a lot of mental issues out there. Especially after Central State Hospital (a psychiatric treatment center) shut down, they just put people on the street, basically.”
“A lot of drug problem stems from mental illness,” Gina added. If they can do drugs and forget their demons, it’s easier that way.”
Griffin also recalled a homeless man he met who previously cleaned hospitals for a living through a contract job. When the contract ended, the man received unemployment, but it was not enough to get by.
“He got $95 a week; the amount was barely enough to eat, let alone cover utilities and rent.” Griffin said. “He couldn’t afford his place and ended up on the streets to no fault of his own. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate. Everyone is one disaster away from being on the streets themselves.”
Yet, he encourages those who feel down about their circumstances to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, sharing the story of up-and-coming race car driver Kristian Aleixo. Referring to himself as “The World’s Unlikeliest Race Car Driver” on his Facebook page (KristianAleixoOfficial), the former Iraqi vet was homeless for 75 percent of high school due to the death of his mother. He was raised by an absentee father, and developed Type 1 diabetes. “I’ll brag about (Aleixo) and say, ‘If this man can pick himself up, you can too,’” Griffin said.