A group of volunteers for Healers Without Borders pass out socks to a homeless man at his tent.
Brad Reiss and three volunteers for Healers Without Borders pass out socks to a man at his encampment. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

Brad Reiss, 60, didn’t always think about the importance of socks until he started passing them out to homeless people in the Tenderloin. The South San Francisco native was working on a documentary at the time, about people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. But as he passed out socks to those in homeless encampments, it became clear that there was more of a need for footwear than for another documentary.

“Who were the people who were going to see the documentary? Certainly not those in the streets,” Reiss said. “There was a basic need that wasn’t being filled for these people.”

These soft, small articles of clothing, Reiss explained, are an essential part of human health, and are often the most requested clothing item at homeless shelters. However, socks are infrequently donated, leaving shelters unable to provide enough of them. 

But on Saturday morning at 10 a.m., Reiss and 15 other volunteers gathered in the Best Buy parking lot at Harrison and Alameda streets with 300 pairs of socks. The group of volunteers would spend the morning in the Mission passing out the socks and other essential items. The effort is part of a new nonprofit that Reiss started about 7 months ago: Healers Without Borders.

Volunteers for Healers Without Borders organize clothes and hygiene kits in a Best Buy parking lot. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

“What we’re trying to do right now is organize ourselves,” said treasurer John Penna, who once worked in real estate and served on the South San Francisco City Council. Healers Without Borders, which received its nonprofit status in February,  is self-funded by Reiss, a few board members, and some donations. “We’re so fresh that we’re just trying to engage people,” Penna said. 

Their philosophy is simple: Be a compassionate presence for those who are struggling, by providing basic necessities and – most important – friendship.

Reiss knows of what he speaks. Born and raised in South San Francisco, Reiss said he was in and out of trouble from the ages of 14 to 43. He was a known drug dealer, and tried to get sober on many occasions, but with no luck. That all changed in 2005, when a police officer, pursuing him on a drug sales warrant, shot Reiss. He was hit twice, one bullet lodging in each arm. 

“I think they were undercover cops,” Reiss said. 

During his week-long recovery at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, he could see Bernal Heights from his room. “I thought to myself, ‘Boy, I better take a long look because I’m not going to be able to see those mountains again for a long time,’” Reiss recalled. 

Brad Reiss. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

For the next three years of his life, Reiss was shuttled in and out of court every 45 days. 

“My attorney at the time called it ‘an epiphany moment’ for me,’” Reiss said of his shooting. And in many ways, that attorney was correct. Reiss went to Alcoholics Anonymous straight away and, this time, he was ready to get sober. He spent the next 17 years of his life helping others do the same.

You can donate to Healers without Borders on their web page.

Of his new organization, he said, “We’re not recreating the wheel here. We’re not trying to do voodoo or detox. We’re trying to soften the blow.”

How does one do that? By showing up.

And it was simple interactions that seemed to pay off throughout the morning. 

A group of volunteers at 13th and Shotwell streets pass out pants to a homeless man. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

At one encampment, a man from Mexico had been homeless since losing his job at the start of the pandemic. He was thankful to receive a hoodie, but also to have someone come up and talk to him.

Around the underpass at 13th and Shotwell streets, Reiss gave a woman a suitcase with clothing. 

“Nobody has talked to me in months,” the woman said, moved to tears by the simple act of kindness. “Thank you.” 

Several volunteers at the Healers Without Borders event knew Reiss through various recovery programs.

“You can’t force recovery,” said Frank Herrera, who met Reiss four years ago in a recovery program. He stressed the importance of inviting people in, in the same way Reiss invited him in. 

A couple in a tent poked their heads out in the middle of our conversation. Herrera paused. “How are you all doing this morning?” he asked. Smiles crept over their faces. 

Two and a half hours, 300 socks, 50 hygiene kits, 50 pairs of pants, 40 shirts and 20 jackets later, the group of volunteers debriefed about their first event.

 “It was so humbling to meet people in their own space. In some ways, connecting with the people was more important than just giving the item,” said Ellen Koestler, a volunteer. 

The long-term vision for Healers Without Borders is still unclear. But there is one thing that is certain: They’ll be back soon. And next time, they may not just be passing out socks. “I noticed multiple people had pets,” one volunteer pointed out. “What if we also gave out bags of dog treats?”

You can donate to Healers without Borders on their web page.

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Intern reporter. Carolyn grew up in Los Angeles. She previously served as a desk editor for her college newspaper The Stanford Daily. When she's not reporting, you can find her going on an unnecessarily long walk.

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  1. There is an angel, Paul Crowell, who supplies food and vet care for pets of homeless San Franciscans. It is called Project Open Paw. You can find it on Instagram with a link for donations.
    Project Open Paw (@projectopenpaw)

  2. SF spending over a billion dollars per year on homeless, but is anyone surprised that it’s never enough? That’s more than 100 thousand per homeless per year. Most people work full time jobs and make less than that per year.

    As long as SF spending this kind of funds on this “problem”, this will never end. And why should it?

    If you all think that corruption was just prerogative of few good men at the city hall, then you definitely don’t understand how this city works. Everyone gotta wet their beak. And homeless are just as excuse to have a party 🎊.

    This is absurd. Stop writing these articles about “omg poor homeless etc” and get them out of here. I mean for over 20 years it’s the same story every day. How about next time you write an article about real SF kids picking up needles everywhere?

    Just cut the homeless funding, dismantle homeless industrial complex and start focusing on actual needs of SF residents who pay taxes. Streets are filthy and dangerous. Just few days ago a friend of mine got beat up by a homeless at 2pm on mission street. Why don’t you write about that. Where did that “saint homeless” go? Probably hanging out at this same “non-profit”.

    Have any of you at ML even try to answer a question: who gets money from homeless budget? I tried, and SF government does not release public info on who gets contracts and why. But apparently there are hundreds of non-profits 😬.

    “One fake non-profit per homeless” – should be motto of this city.

    1. San Francisco is not spending $100K per homeless individual. The math of dividing the homeless budget by the homeless count is simplistic to the point of crass stupidity. Putting people into housing and thereby reducing that homeless count costs money. This isn’t a difficult concept.

      Every keyboard warrior attempting to impress by showing what a hard-hearted asshole he is can take their screeds elsewhere.

      JE

  3. The balance between kicking someone out of a plastic tent or offering them socks is mind boggling. It stinks being homeless..but what stinks more is not caring..Our society has always had homeless people..and supreme wealthy people..just our Media brings it to your living room.. Good luck on your endeavors..I would like to offer a suggestion..instead of begging for donations from people..get those billion dollar companies to hire a few of these folks..Send them to school..

  4. As an ex-addict homeless person, yes simple acts of kindness are wonderful. But no addict is going to change if you keep making it easy to use. No addict is going to quit just because. They need HUGE incentive or disincentive to change.

  5. Beautiful acts of kindness, thank you for being part of the positive energy so needed in this world.

  6. can someone do some reporting on results? these “feel good” stories do very little for me. I sincerely appreciate their efforts, but I would like to know whether the approach is effective. to use a cliche… what is the definition of insanity? doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome. that feels like san francisco’s approach to homelessness. compassion to the point of chaos.

    1. Results? People got warm feet and pants to wear. Some got human contact that they would not have otherwise experienced. That was the expectation. Not every effort to be decent to people is trying to solve all the world’s problems. You’re not paying for it.

  7. Thank you, Healers Without Borders. Thank you especially for recognizing that simple human kindness is invaluable. Bless you all.

  8. Hello,
    Are you the organization that gave this homeless couple a tent the size of my livingroom? They’re located on California and Polk, huge gi-normous tent! Really?! How about giving them an SRO, for hygiene and overall better quality of life! What an eyesore!

    1. Calm yourself down, Christopher. . . There are more important things to be upset at than the size of a tent for those who are unhoused. For goodness sake, find some compassion!

  9. My whole family, including our young teenagers, volunteered a few times with a similar, very small group visiting encampments pre-pandemic.

    If there was anything that helped us all become more empathetic toward our neighbors and peers who have fallen upon hard times, it was this experience. It literally changed our entire world view.

    I strongly encourage anyone to donate and join them.

  10. I want to applaud Bob Riess and the volunteers for their selfless act in giving hope to homeless people that others do care about them. His nonprofit organization is just beginning, but I hope it will grow and spread to other communities.

    1. The easier you make it for the homeless the less incentive they have to make the change to become sober and less of a burden on the rest of society. I say this as someone who used to use and had to lose it all in order to gather the strength the get my sh*t together.