Anthony Singhavong, Nate Fung, Shirley Chang, and Emi Nakamura, left to right, make burritos on the living room table. (Daily Pilot / October 23, 2010)

It all started during a church service.

Anthony Singhavong, a fourth-year student at UC Irvine, was attending NewSong Community Church in the spring of 2009 when Pastor Tony Kim spoke about the importance of serving the community.

"They're just really big on inspiring the younger generation," Singhavong said about his church.

Kim mentioned the Burrito Project, a nationwide relief effort involving groups making burritos for the homeless. The project won the first MySpace Impact Award in 2006 and there are now Burrito Projects all over the United States, from Los Angeles to Detroit. The church was going to start one in northern Orange County.

Singhavong knew he wanted to be part of the project, but he had a different plan.

"We had this vision of [the Burrito Project] being run by college students," Singhavong said.

He also didn't want to be associated with the church.

"Anyone could come of any religious affiliation," he said. "Obviously we have our own beliefs and stuff, but the idea of helping another person is a worldwide, common trait."

A week later, the Burrito Banditos of Irvine were born.

Singhavong and his roommates — Andrew Yang, Steven Wang, Mike Fukuda and Josh Yu — decided they would help out the homeless of Santa Ana because, although the city was close to Irvine, it provided a stark contrast to the university town.

"The reason we chose Santa Ana is … when you cross the 405 Freeway, about 10 minutes in, you're like 'What is this place?'" he said. "It's not like Irvine all around the world."

Because they're students, Singhavong and his roommates had to find a way to make a burrito within their limited budgets. Plus, they were working off donations from other students because they did not want to be affiliated with a religious institution.

"We came up with something that was easy to make and affordable, because we're college students," said Yu, the Banditos' burrito chef. "These are just rice and bean burritos. If they wanted to, they could probably keep it for a couple days before it goes bad."

Each ride of distributing the food costs $60 to $70 and produces about 150 burritos. It includes a water bottle and covers the necessary supplies (such as bags and tinfoil) to create the burritos. Sometimes, when donations come in, they're able to add a granola bar or a pair of socks.

Although many people show support for the group — including campus religious groups and SHOUT, a UCI organization dedicated to homeless outreach — the group is close-knit, with about 20 people total running the show. Half make the burritos on Saturdays and then on Sunday; the other half rides around Santa Ana on bikes, delivering them to the homeless.

Their main stop is the Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana. They caravan over, with bikes strapped on the back of a car. Then they cruise around, looking for familiar faces and new ones, too. Much like an anthropologist earning trust in a tribe, it hasn't been easy for the students to develop relationships with the homeless there. Many were confused by the homemade meal, especially when they said there were no strings attached.

"They'd be questioning us when we were out there," Singhavong said. "They'd always be like, 'Are you guys part of a church?' (I said) we're just a few friends that wanted to come out and talk to you guys. They're like 'Oh, you don't want us to go to a church or anything?'"

They don't talk about the project or their personal religious beliefs with the people they serve.

"I think you can determine someone's faith more so by their actions than by what they say," he said.

Their hipster style and colorful bikes make them hard to miss two Sundays a month. Over time, Singhavong said, they feel accepted in the community. Instead of hesitant, many homeless people are excited to see the roommates and their crew.