Walking with the homeless in New York City
It’s forty degrees in New York City on a typical Saturday morning in February. What do most people do on weekends in the winter? I would assume most would pick an activity set indoors where it’s warm and cozy. Brunch, maybe? But not me. At least not this weekend. Today, my Saturday will be spent outside in the cold, walking for hours, reaching out to the most vulnerable population in New York: the homeless.
It’s not my first time doing this. Last year, I led a team of volunteers and we walked for blocks around Harlem looking to find people living out in the streets needing food, clothing, or a bed for the night. It’s an experience that taught me a great deal of what it means to have a community and also pushed me to embrace being uncomfortable.
We met two homeless neighbors that year — not a lot compared to what I expected. But I was grateful for those two we had an opportunity to meet. This year, I’m not going to expect much. Pressure will be low, and I’m going to take it easy.
First, let’s look at some stats: according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s 2018 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report, on a single night in 2018, roughly 553,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. New York accounted for 17% or 91,897 of those. That is a lot.
How could a Saturday walk with my co-volunteers impact a national crisis of this scale? How can I lead a group to help people living out in the streets? How could our care packages, a hot meal, a new pair of socks, or a bed to sleep in for the night, relieve the homeless, a majority of whom is suffering from mental illnesses and health issues?
After eating a heavy breakfast that morning, my husband and I, along with two of our friends left Queens for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. There, we waited along with three hundred other volunteers as we prepared for what's to come in the afternoon. The energy was palpable.
At around two o’clock in the afternoon, we were off to scour Manhattan’s East Side to deliver the supplies we packed in our bags to the homeless, hoping they'd accept our humble invitation back at the church for dinner. It was quite inspiring to see: hundreds of volunteers who could be doing other things — chose to be here instead — walking out of the church in droves, ready to serve in the cold.
Our group of three men and four women took the subway uptown. I was our group’s leader. To be honest, I thought I was not equipped to lead, but with my husband being there, I knew we’d be okay.
We walked for three hours that afternoon, checking parks, banks, subway stations, streets with scaffolding, and bridges. We had ideas of where one would typically find the homeless. But for the most part, we found them out in the streets, walking like everyone else. At one point, we met five of them within two blocks. They were hungry and invisible; some were surprised of the attention they were given.
Of the people I met that afternoon, one stood out to me. He was a big guy, quite receptive of my friend and I’s intrusion into his afternoon. He had a shopping cart filled with everything he owned: a sleeping bag, dirty laundry possibly, extra supplies, and a bunch of other ‘stuff’. We introduced ourselves to him and told him about a special dinner that night at the church. Hot meals will be served. There will be a printed menu on the table. Possible overnight stay with a clean bed and a warm blanket. He seemed interested.
It was the first interaction that afternoon where I felt more confident introducing myself. We’ve met about ten people already at that point, and I was convinced I got the hang of it. With a bit of hesitation, I felt a strong urge to pray with him.
I asked, “Can we pray with you?”.
I surprised myself before I could finish the question. I’ve always been shy about praying aloud. It’s too intimate, and I’m embarrassed to hear what other people might think of how I prayed. But this was a different night. I was convinced I had to pray with him. He replied.
“No thank you.”
It was a respectful short response that hit me like a punch in the gut. His response hurt. My motivation for volunteering, for talking to him, was rejected quickly.
Thanks to him, I was reminded that the day wasn't about me. It was about him.
In the end, we gave him a hygiene and a winter kit, and a few extra resources. That should be enough.
At around six o’clock, we came back to the church joyful and inspired. We successfully engaged with more than ten people that day, more than triple the number of guests we met last year. Guests also started coming into the church, rescue vans lined 55th St. dropping off those who needed transportation.
More than 130 guests accepted our invitation for dinner that night. Podiatrists, case managers, legal aide, medical support, and multiple resources welcomed and served them warmly. I wasn’t there to see it myself, but I knew the hospitality crew made our guests feel valued, seen, and hopefully — loved.
It was amazing to see what a group of people can do in a day to help the community. Seeing the movement up close made me inspired to do more and serve where I can. A small deed can make a big difference in someone’s life.
I don’t think I would be able to answer my big questions about the crisis on homelessness. We can all talk about solutions, causes, ideas, and policies that we can think of. But there’s only one thing I’m sure of after this experience: God is in control. I saw Him that day. I saw Him in my group, in the friends we met, in the event coordinators who planned the event, and in the organizations who help fund outreach events like these. I saw Him — fueling people into action.
I can’t even take credit of what I did that day. It wasn’t me. It was the strong, moving force in my life that willed me to volunteer; invite friends to join; and offer kindness to strangers.
It was God that moved me. He is in control. The glory is all His.
Don’t Walk By
If you’re interested in hearing more about Don’t Walk By, visit https://www.rescuealliance.nyc/dontwalkby. Learn more about the Rescue Alliance, a faith-rooted collaboration working to end homelessness in New York City and restore the wellbeing of our neighbors on the street through compassionate, comprehensive and collaborative care.