Swimming for the Homeless in the Bronx

“If you’re strong and feeling bold, let’s go jump into the cold,” chanted a group of people while they stood in a mixture of sand and ice on Orchard Beach in the Bronx on Saturday as the temperature approached 32 degrees. Dressed in swimming gear, colorful headpieces, and their winter shoes, they did jumping jacks and ran in place—and screamed to stay warm. Working off of adrenaline, they all dashed into the ocean in a big cluster. The crowd of bystanders along the waterfront cheered and took pictures  as they plunged into 22 degree icy water.

Many New Yorkers enjoy Valentine’s Day out with their sweetheart, or indoors with family and friends, but for the Bronx Polar Bear Club, a winter bathing club, Valentine’s Day this year was a time to enjoy a short winter swim. Over 50 people joined the Bronx Polar Bears, Bronx non-profit BronxWorks, and Bronx Net, a media organization run out of Lehman College, to take a special swim, dubbed the Dip Against Homelessness, where participants donated warm clothing and money for the homeless in the Bronx.

It was the first time since the club’s launch five years ago, that the organization dedicated a winter plunge to a charitable cause. This year, the winter dip served a purpose other than just having fun: to symbolize how cold a homeless person feels during the winter months.

“The problem of homelessness still exists,” said Michael Max Knobbe, executive director of BronxNet. “It needs to be put back into the spotlight.”

The winter swim was also planned to show Bronx residents that they can enjoy their borough no matter the weather.

“We’re trying to take things that are here and embrace them in a fun and different way,” said Baron Ambrosia, a filmmaker and culinary show host, who was the first man to swim the Bronx River in 2013. “To explore you don’t have to go to Madagascar. You can explore your own neighborhood.”

Unlike Ambrosia, who participates in winter swims regularly, some Bronx residents took the winter plunge on Saturday for the first time. Lab Assistant Martin Santos, 23, said that his desire to try something new motivated him more than anything. He came to the beach with three of his friends, but he was the only one who dove into the icy water.

After emerging from the below freezing ocean, Santos, whose legs were bleeding from pieces of ice in the water, said that he would definitely go winter swimming again.

“I felt like Superman,” he said. “My adrenaline was so high.”

For Bronx resident Kate Malloy, just watching the winter plunge to raise awareness for homeless was enough.

“I am sane,” said Malloy, after watching her husband John Doran, 10-year old son Aiden, and friend Joseph Martinez dip into the icy water. “I have nothing to prove.”

But Doran and Martinez, who plunged for the first time, gave the experience a thumbs-up.

“The Bronx unfortunately is a borough that is one of the most under-resourced places, ” Doran said while getting dressed after his swim. “[But] the Bronx has a real sense of community.”