Hunting for Homeless People

Today, was a very strange day indeed. We did a service project with the New York City Urban Project: Feed 500. We all met up in this church in Inwood(?)…it was on 205th st. Inside, some people were packing brown bag lunches and the rest of us were assigned to write “words of inspiration/encouragement” on index cards.

Side note: when we were asked at our last team meeting whether we wanted to participate in this project we were told very minimal information other than we’d be eating lunch with someone homeless–talking to them–and that we’d have to donate at least $5 to the organization. We didn’t know much more.

So when we got there, we were a little confused. The e-mail we got closer to the event told us to bring a camera for documenting  and a one-day metro pass because we’d be going to different locations.

So once we finished preparing, we stuck all those index cards into the brown paper bags and then the leader started talking. He began with a little spoken word about ‘what if’ we all worked to eliminate the extreme wealth disparities within small distances, and what if people from different neighborhoods, religions, races, ethnicities, and so on, intermingled,’ and so on. It was actually a really great poem. He told us a little about himself and how he came from a small town in VA to attend Columbia for poetry, got a full scholarship, in fact. While he was there, he got very involved with Intervarsity, and that was a real highlight for him. So through a half-sermon, half-story telling, he talked about the power of Christ, and the importance of service, the importance of recognizing the humanity in everyone, and even something I really liked about how the grammar of other languages made more sense in their placement of an adjective AFTER the noun, because our humanity should come before describing whether we are black, white, young, or old.

Anyway, as someone who hasn’t really gone to church consistently since 13 or so, and is going through her own inner debate about religion/church/practice and such, I really enjoyed his sermon/lecture/speech whatever you wanna call it…and it was just so timely for me in all that’s been going on in my life. BUT, my group, which is largely not religious, was mumbling sarcastic and frustrated comments throughout. For me, it’s fine if you don’t go to church, or don’t agree with the practice of Christianity, but there’s no reason to be so angry and disrespectful. I’ve heard some crazy evangelical people who are just spouting nonsense, and he really was so down to earth and practical and inserted biblical text so seamlessly that it should’ve been a non-confrontational experience. But what do I know.

But the point of all this is to say that our purpose for the day was to go out into small groups of 4-5 people with our bagged lunches and give them to homeless people we came across in our designated area of Manhattan. They told us a little about how to approach people, and that we should try and have a conversation with them, to get to know them more than just in passing, and to share something about yourself. He also was saying that even if you don’t have Christ, or a faith, that today would be the day that you walk through the city without judgment.

It sounded GREAT…in theory. I don’t know how many times I’ve been on the subway where someone has come  through asking for any bit of help, or passed people sleeping in doorways or sitting with a sign for help, and I’ve had nothing at the moment to share. Now, when I’m walking through the city armed with food—we don’t see one homeless person. On top of that it just felt strange to be walking 30-40 blocks HUNTING for homeless people to give food to.

The organization has great intentions, but not only were the zones we were in devoid of obviously homeless people but, somehow, half of the groups overlapped each other. I’m not ignorant, I’m aware that there are many people who at first glance you wouldn’t think were homeless, and that’s what made this project even more awkward. Since we were offering food, we had to rely on visual cues to be sure that we we were reaching the intended targets, and the only thing we could base it off was if the person was wrapped up in cardboard and old blankets,  sitting near a lot of trash bags, or had an actual sign. This project has no impact on people who don’t fit the stereotypical appearance of a person experiencing homelessness. Not to mention, we were in an affluent neighborhood (upper west side), where the police do a more thorough job of making sure people who are homeless stay out of the view, out of daily consciousness of the well-to-do.

We only ended up running across one person that we could have a conversation with. One man was asleep on a park bench and we left him some food. And then two other people adamantly refused the food. The first man was very vocal about not wanting the food; loud, in fact. I’m sure many of the passersby thought he was just another crazy person and probably would’ve called the cops if they had been part of the encounter, but we listened to what he was saying. What he was saying wasn’t crazy. He was just trying to let us know that organizations like the one we were volunteering with cause an increase in crimes committed AGAINST the homeless. Because we come around with good intentions and give out food so frequently, many of them let their guard down, but then they become vulnerable to people who DON’T have good intentions and often end up getting beaten up. So he said, that he appreciated your good intentions but that we needed to stop doing this, or that we should be offering food at a specific location. Basically, he’s saying these organizations weaken their instincts, which they depend on to survive.

We’d never really thought about it and it was something that needed to be said. Many people organizing and doing volunteer work have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always thought through the impact of what they’re doing. Giving away food (and pretty bad food at that) is a temporary solution; what are you/we doing to address the systemic failures that lead to people being homeless in the first place. Also, there are many more people experiencing food insecurity than are necessarily homeless. So again, that goes back to the system.

The other man who refused our food was sitting on a bucket with a sign asking for help, but he didn’t want help in the form of food.

We ended our day, most of us still had the same food that we’d started the day with. We didn’t feel like we’d failed in not giving the food out; at least we’d learned something from the experience. Even the leader of the project who’d been sermonizing us earlier said that we may not meet anyone homeless along our route, and that maybe the purpose of this day was for us to meet someone new that was also volunteering or maybe it was just to think. I think he was right.