A concerned community helping those in need—Carmen Zepp, Human Beans Together


Carmen Zepp is the founder of Human Beans Together. She and a “collective of concerned citizens,” all volunteers, prepare and serve a hot meal and give away non-perishable food and toiletries to the homeless once a week in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. She spoke with us about her experiences and will be speaking at the Humanism at Work conference, July 18-20 in Chicago.

Carmen has been involved in feeding her local community for more than twelve years. She started with Meals on Wheels during her lunch break. She delivered meals to people who either couldn’t afford it or couldn’t physically prepare food themselves. While volunteering, she discovered a lot about herself, like “how privileged I actually was, how much community meant, and how quickly circumstances can change.”

She took that experience to heart when founding Human Beans Together. Since its founding two years ago, it has grown quite a lot. Carmen says that she finds it awe-inspiring: “My faith in humanity is restored each and every Sunday by the outpouring of support and the sheer numbers of volunteers that we have turn out to help us, even when the weather is crappy (which has been often this winter) and personal funds are low (which they have been ever since the depression of 2008).”

As the economy recovers and Human Beans Together grows, Carmen has big plans. She’d like to open a family shelter and a clothing and food pantry. Although she notes that even if Human Beans remains a weekly giveaway, she will be satisfied that she’s had firsthand experience with how many people care about others and are taking action to help those in need in their community.

They’ve needed that caring and motivation to act when they faced their biggest challenge to date. After no problems for a year, the City of Raleigh decided to start enforcing an ordinance prohibiting sharing food in city parks without a ($800 per occasion) permit, which displaced several charities, including Human Beans. Thanks to the involvement of local and national media and public outcry, the City backed down and is now attempting to work with Human Beans and the other groups to address the larger issues of homelessness, the working poor, and the hunger that both groups regularly experience.

Carmen also has some insights as to the obstacles or excuses that prevent people from volunteering:

I imagine that apathy has a lot to do with it. But what drives apathy? I imagine it has a lot to do with struggling just to make one’s own ends meets. It’s hard to give when you’re struggling just to support yourself and your own family.

I imagine that there’s also a certain amount of prejudice involved. It’s the whole “us” vs. “them” mentality with regard to the homeless. In reality, most of us are just a pink slip or a catastrophic illness away from becoming “them.” However, we construct barriers in our own minds—call it self-preservation, I suppose—that prevent us from truly empathizing and sympathizing with the less fortunate in our society. Whatever you want to call it, the result is that we tend to place blame instead of lending a hand. My hope is that knowledge, experience, and empowerment eventually works to overcome these social and psychological barriers to charity and community. Whatever the reason is for these obstacles in charity, I’m convinced that the more you see the “regular” people you know taking action to further humanistic principles, the more you’ll see “regular” people take action. That’s certainly why I am “bean” the change I want to see in the world.