Teens Help the Homeless

Indian American Teens Empower Homeless with Sleep and Microloans

“You’ve donated food. You’ve donated clothes. How about donating sleep?”

That’s the proposition of Catch a Z Foundation, a unique nonprofit dedicated to empowering homeless people to get ahead, in part, by giving them the means to a better night’s sleep. The organization, founded and headed by two Indian American high school students in San Jose, California, also provides the homeless with no-interest microloans for business ventures.

Since getting started in 2013, young social entrepreneurs Aditya Gunda and Hersh Solanki have led Catch a Z Foundation in distributing over 10,000 blankets to homeless individuals across North America.

The Birth of a Cause

As with most causes, Catch a Z started off small before growing to where it’s currently supplying sleepwear to places as distant and diverse as Canada and Tijuana, Mexico.

Founders Aditya Gunda and Hersh Solanki had always been socially-minded. They both participated extensively in local volunteer efforts prior to forming their own foundation. Their awareness of local needs was stirred by the stark contrast between the wealthy and poor in their native Bay Area, which is at once one of the wealthiest regions of the world and also a site of widespread poverty.

It was while giving service at a soup kitchen that Gunda noticed how problematic it is for homeless people to sleep well. He witnessed many camping overnight out on the street in order to be among the first in line once the soup kitchen opened. These people would awake fatigued, weak, and unable to think about little more than filling their stomachs with a quick meal.

As Gunda and Solanki point out on their website, a person running on little-to-no sleep manifests mental impairment not unlike someone who’s intoxicated. Sleeping out in the cold on the hard pavement results in a poor sleep experience. The homeless sleep like this night after night. As a result, they’re never at their full mental capacity. If they would sleep comfortably, they would wake up rejuvenated and have the energy to climb up the economic ladder.

Upon seeing this need, Gunda quickly identified a cost-free solution. The hospitals at which he volunteered regularly discarded used blankets. These were blankets that were still in good condition, but that had to be replaced due to hospital policy. Gunda began requesting these blankets and distributing them to local shelters.

Gunda’s classmate at San Jose’s Archbishop Mitty High School, Hersh Solanki, joined in the effort and brought in the microfinance aspect of the foundation. He realized that many homeless people have the dream and vision to create ventures that will make them financially independent, but lack the capital.

Solinka decided to draw upon microfinance—a solution which has had profound success in less wealthy parts of the world. The principle lies in giving small-sum, interest-free loans for flexible periods of time. Borrowers must go through an application process and meet a few criteria, such as not having a criminal record. They can qualify for amounts between $200 and $1000, which are used as seed money and repaid within 6 months to a year.

But Catch a Z doesn’t simply throw money at people blindly. It also connects every borrower to business training with experienced executives from companies like Intel and LSI Corp. In this way, low-income people obtain the means and the knowledge to succeed. With the sleepwear, they find the physical and mental energy.

Running Catch a Z has been a great learning experience for its two young executives. They hope to continue growing the cause by eventually providing hygiene kits in addition to sleepwear. They’re constantly looking for volunteers and sponsors in order to ship and distribute across the continent.

You can learn more about Gunda and Solanki’s cause at catchaz.org.