Backpack Project distributes necessities on Homeless Heroes Day

Winter is coming and approximately 3,000 people in Atlanta are homeless. Athens-based non-profit, The Backpack Project, aims to serve as many of those individuals as possible at their fourth annual Homeless Heroes Day, Friday.

“This is our highest impact day of the year and our major fundraising opportunity,” said William Ross, CEO of The Backpack Project. “We’ll target specific non-profits, like Gateway Center, Nicolas House, the Veterans Empowerment Organization, and Evolution Center – all of whom have been distributing flyers to advertise to the homeless community.”

Volunteers at the event will pack 1,500 backpacks with approximately 30 items in each, including toiletry kits, hats, gloves, thermal socks, ponchos, food, and water.

Ross, 22, grew up in Atlanta and volunteered through his school, Marist School, at shelters and soup kitchens. When he became a student at the University of Georgia, he felt called to find volunteer work in homeless services. He joined The Backpack Project in 2018.

It is a student organization founded at UGA that serves the homeless community, primarily in Athens. While they are known for hand-delivering backpacks, some members are also trained in harm reduction, which includes administering NARCAN if a client is experiencing an overdose. Since their inception in 2015, the UGA chapter has distributed 13,000 backpacks, 80 NARCAN kits, and over 2,000 meals. The Backpack Project has expanded to other colleges, including Georgia Tech and Georgia State, as well as colleges in the Carolinas. The non-profit hopes to make personal connections with the homeless community and advocate for basic human rights, especially shelter.

“It never occurred to me how important this right is until a friend had a homeless client who was so tired of sleeping outside that she stepped in front of a car,” said Ross. “If the general public was aware of what’s going on in homeless encampments, they would be alarmed. I’ve seen a pregnant woman huddled over an open flame under a tarp in snowy weather. It’s unthinkable.”

Ross said there are many misconceptions about homeless people.

“I think people who haven’t engaged with homelessness are scared, nervous, or don’t know where to start. That’s difficult because you may carry a problematic or erroneous stigma,” said Ross. “My stance is you should see people as neighbors and work to ensure your neighbors aren’t suffering.”

Bec Cranford, who will speak at Homeless Heroes Day, agrees with Ross that there are stigmas and homeless people are worthy of respect, basic rights and compassion. Cranford, who has worked as the director of community engagement and volunteerism at Gateway Center for a decade, knows firsthand what it’s like to be homeless.

“I had a truck I could sleep in, so I’d say I experienced privileged homelessness,” said Cranford, 44. “I slept in alleys, inside of clubs, and I slept inside my truck. I found myself in horrible situations where I was preyed upon, I got into the drug scene. It’s when I overdosed that I decided to fix my life. My only framework was spirituality, so I went back to that.”

Cranford earned her master’s in divinity. She wanted to be in a position where she could offer hope.

“I’m not a messiah or a guru,” said Cranford. “It’s my homeless friends, the guests at Gateway, who offer me hope and salvation. They save me more than I save them. I have met some of the wisest people living on the streets of Atlanta. There is so much wisdom to be gained if we just humble ourselves and listen to people.”

For those who may not understand the daily struggles involved with homelessness, Cranford described the typical day in the life of a homeless person.

They wake in the woods, in an alleyway, or on the steps of a church and must find a safe place to go to the bathroom. They don’t know if they can find food or hospitality anywhere, or if they’ll be able to brush their teeth. They may have to walk miles to get to a soup kitchen or to an organization that provides sack lunches or shower facilities. The wear and tear on their feet and bodies, the exposure to the elements, their vulnerability to drug use, the damage to their psyche – it’s all so much. Many of these individuals are isolated. When is the last time they had a hug? When is the last time someone said their name? If they’re alone, can they sleep without fearing someone will try to oppress or use them? Then, when morning light comes, they wake, sleep deprived, and do it all over again.

“For our friends experiencing this life, receiving a backpack from Homeless Heroes Day gives them some dignity, grace and compassion, as well as an opportunity to learn about resources available to them,” said Cranford. “Some may not be ready to take the step to get help, but thanks to this event, they’ll know where to find us when they’re ready.”

While volunteers are no longer needed for Homeless Heroes Day, donations are always welcome at

If you would like to learn ways you, your children, or company can get involved with The Backpack Project, e-mail William Ross at


Was someone kind to you this year? As we head into the holiday season, we’d like to hear kind acts that you experienced this year. What did this mean to you? Or did you commit to being kinder in this challenging year, and if so, what did you do? What kind of response did you receive? We’ll be sharing some of these stories as we head into the season of giving. If this speaks to you, send us an email. Include your name, which we will use, your city, and contact info to