They “Don’t Walk By” the Hidden Homeless

Homeless people from across the city were brought back to the Bethel Gospel Assembly for a hot meal and new clothes. (NYCityLens/Swati Gupta)

Homeless people from across the city were brought back to the Bethel Gospel Assembly for a hot meal and new clothes. (NY City Lens/Swati Gupta)

In spite of free shelters offered by the city, hundreds of men and stay out on the streets every day and night, even in freezing temperatures. For numerous reasons these people fall through the cracks. Yet they survive, sometimes with the help of fellow New Yorkers.

Some 294 such New Yorkerscame together on Saturday afternoon, with the temperature hovering around 20 degrees, to offer such help for a day, braving the cold for the fourth installment of the annual “Don’t Walk By” drive.

Five missionary organizations in New York City have been organizing this drive for seven years, with the aim of finding the hidden homeless across the city and giving them an opportunity to enjoy a hot meal and new clothes, among other things.

Individuals interested in staying on with the organizations are assessed and admitted into existing housing programs. “We have a lot of people who are currently in our residential program,” said Ellen Hwang, the co-ordinator for the Bowery Mission. In fact, some of these residents—all homeless at one time—were out helping in the drive on Saturday, trying to reach others. Maybe the aim, as volunteer Bill Rinko-Gay put it, was “Not to find everybody, but to miss nobody.”

Volunteers and workers from the five organizations—The Bowery Mission, Hope For New York, New York City Relief, New York City Rescue Mission, and Street Life Ministries—worked both on the street and at the Bethel Gospel Church, which acted as the nucleus of the operation. Divided into 33 teams—30 on street and three for subway—the drive was organized by zones, with each team covering a certain area. The teams sent to far-away zones got a ride in cars or vans volunteered for the day. The rest, as the name of the project suggests, walked.

As the volunteers engaged with people on the street, they tried to convince them to come with them to the church for a hot meal, a basic medical check-up, a few essentials, some clothes, and a Metro card. As soon as a homeless person agrees to this, the group calls the transportation team, which immediately sends a car for a pick-up. A volunteer waits till the car arrives and moves on with the beat. The car, in turn, deposits the homeless individual at the church, where a team awaits to help them and talk to them. David Chicaguala, 55, works in the logistics section for the Bowery Mission and has been involved with this outreach since the beginning. “It brings a lot of awareness,” he said, adding that homelessness is unfortunately, “an everyday reality in New York.”

One of the teams setting out was led by Rinko-Gay, a 54-year-old veteran volunteer. The idea, as Rinko-Gay said, is to find as many people as possible and treat them as “one of us,” he said. “Everyone is a person and not a check mark in someone’s charity book.”

With four first-year medical students in tow, he set out to West Harlem. The team “J” had been asked to cover everything between 135th and 145th streets, across three avenues. While the mission has been in play for years and most the kinks have been worked out, it seemed that some zones have been geographically allocated without much understanding of where the homeless tend to be, and with Bill’s team trudging along well groomed and expensive neighborhoods, they were two hours into the walk without engaging a single homeless person. The group stopped to pray at a street corner. As they spoke to people on the street, they encouraged them to pray along too, for the individuals who have no home to go to at night. The names of the people the volunteers meet or help are catalogued and sent to church groups who pray for their well being, said Rinko-Gay.

The jokes and conversation that had been flowing at the start were running out in the cold. As the team stood at the corner of 141st and Adam Clayton Powell Road, one volunteer ran in to buy an extra pair of socks to warm her frozen feet. The team eventually made contact with one homeless person, who was unwilling to come back to the church. “People don’t want to take what we had to offer. I realized there is no magic solution, It is very hard,” said 24-year-old Aanu Bakare.

The four students, all from Cornell University, heard about the drive through their local church group and decided to lend a hand. Demitri Dedousis, 23, seemed a little disappointed with the outcome. “I would have liked to talk to more people and pray with them,” he said back at the church.

Homeless people are also offered the option to spend the night at the New York State Mission, at Lafayette Street, with the promise of a hot shower, gift cards, breakfast, and a ride back to their area in the morning. Few opt to come for the meal and fewer still stay for the night. Despite the cold, there are approximately 3,000 people who live on the streets every day, according to The New York Times. In the last three drives, Don’t Walk By engaged 628 individuals. Around 498 of those were willing to come back and be served, and a mere 54 people opted to stay the night at the Mission.

As volunteers return, they stand in line to collect coffee and cookies. (NYCityLens/Swati Gupta)

As volunteers return, they stand in line to collect coffee and cookies. (NY City Lens/Swati Gupta)

This weekend, the drive served 139 homeless people and 18 people consented to stay the night at the New York State Mission, according to Hwang.

As teams trudged in with red cheeks and scarfs pulled tight across faces, they were greeted by a group of volunteers serving coffee and cookies. New York City Department of Homeless Services estimated 58,000 people were living in shelters as of February 25, 2015. That number does not account for the hundreds spread out on park benches, alleyways, and outside fast food joints.

“Homelessness and poverty are different in different countries, but they all miss normal human interactions,” Rinko-Gay said.