Ethan Hill was on his way to school one day in 2016, when he noticed a man living under a freeway overpass. Despite only being 6 years old at the time, Hill was determined to help the man. After school, he began to research ways he could provide aid to the homeless.
A few weeks later, Hill used his Christmas money to buy food, snacks, water, tarps and toiletries to give to the man, who he came to know as Mr. Marcus, as well as others who were also living under the freeway.
“He was so kind, and he found a nice word to give me,” Hill says. “So after that experience, I learned that they are people too and if we can provide some help for them, they can be employed and have a stable living condition.”
Five years later, Hill’s bout of generosity has blossomed into Ethan’s Heart Bags 4 Blessings, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization centered on donating charitable goods to the homeless in Hill’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and surrounding cities. The organization calls for donations so Hill, with the help of his parents, can create and deliver care packages to the homeless. Donors have the option of sending in necessities like food, clothing, hygienic supplies, and sleeping bags, for instance, or can choose to make a monetary donation to the organization directly.
As of 2020, there were 3,351 people experiencing homelessness in Alabama, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report. Nationally, this number swells to approximately 580,000 people. While 60% of people experiencing homelesseness lived in temporary locations—such emergency shelters—according to the report, nearly 4 in 10 people were living in “places not suitable for human habitation” such as in parks, or abandoned buildings.
As the country went into quarantine in 2020, people experiencing homelessness became uniquely vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. While making personal deliveries became unsafe, Hill didn’t let this deter him. He asked the local Birmingham Police Department if they were willing to help deliver his care packages while out on their beats, and they readily agreed.
“Like my parents say, if you walk into the house and you see trash, pick it up, put it in the trash can,” Hill says. “If you see a problem, fix it.”
With the help of local law enforcement, Hill’s packages were delivered to people in the middle of the night and in the parts of the county he wouldn’t have been able to visit on his own, growing the reach of his donations.
Hill says his work has also led him to building relationships, and gaining wisdom, from many in the homeless community.
“They can give you those little nuggets of life that nobody ever told you,” he says.
After meeting a homeless veteran last year—whom he refers to as Mr. Richard—Hill was determined to find him housing. With the help of his parents, Ebony and David Hill, Hill located a boarding home and, through donations to his organization, he was able to pay for the first month for Mr. Richard. The Hills then connected Mr. Richard with Veteran Affairs to help him find permanent housing.
“Over my journey I have found that no matter what, they are people. Life happens. You don’t have to look down on somebody because of the state they’re in,” says Hill.
Hill has since collected a village of supporters who donate and help package his bags. The organization receives “a couple thousand” donations a year, he says.
“The best part of it all is to be able to take the platforms that I get put on and flip those into donations, which go out to the people,” Hill says.
As for his hopes for the future, Hill believes he’s just getting started.
“I’m trying to build homeless camps in the future,” he says. “I’m trying to have a sit down with the President and talk about what we could do to get more funding for those that are out there and employ some of them that’s out there too and get them working, get them into stable conditions.” In September, the Biden Administration launched “House America”, a federal initiative calling on cities, counties, states and tribal government leaders to commit to reducing homelessness, in exchange for federal support and resources.
Hill doesn’t only want to help the homeless through a top-down approach, but hopes to work alongside those in the community to help him expand his efforts.
“I’d like to get some of those homeless people that [are] out there steady and I will try to see if they would try to help me with work, to go out and help. They know where all the populated places are. So they could tell us what the places are, we can go there and we can supply more people with the needs they have.”
Ultimately, Hill’s hope is that homelessness will end, but as long as people need help, he will be there to give it he says.
“Homelessness is a problem that we can at least try to solve. We’re never going to solve it. But we can at least strive to try. It never hurts to try. So if [we] can get [them] affordable housing, we can put some of them in rehab, get their life together, some of them. They can actually be a billionaire, one of those big corporation owners that influence people. They can be great.”
Watch the Kid of the Year broadcast special, hosted by Trevor Noah, on Nickelodeon on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 7:30pm/6:30pm CT to find out which finalist will be named TIME Kid of the Year
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