A year at the shelter

When we moved to NYC last year, I had a hard time adjusting to life in the big city. Soon after we got here, I discovered a homeless shelter that was reasonably easy to get to (right down the 6 off Canal Street), and began volunteering there for a few hours every week. It’s now been a little over a year since I started, and the New York Rescue Mission has become one of the two or three things besides our little apartment and work that I most associate with NYC. It’s a part of my life here now. I want to say a few things about it.

(The above video starts and ends with Charles. He’s a good friend.)

The NYRM is the oldest homeless shelter in America – it was founded in 1872. Today, the Mission sleeps almost 200 at full capacity, in both men and women’s wings. “Homeless” is a really inexact word to use for the people the Mission serves. Most people there have much bigger and more complex needs than not having a (safe) place to sleep. The biggest by far is hopelessness. It’s hard to explain how deeply and cruelly and tragically many people you meet there have been beaten down over the years. This is compounded by addiction and, in some cases, mental illness. People aren’t healthy because there is literally no way to be healthy on the street. You eat what you can get; you rarely have access to clean water, let alone a shower. Everyone is chronically tired because they sleep poorly, or not at all, and are constantly stressed out by very real danger.

“Homeless” people are often met with unmasked disgust by the general public. You know what I’m talking about – there is a very powerful stigma associated with people living on the street. And they know it. It’s pretty heartbreaking to know that not only are folks there dealing with staying alive, hoping to get one decent meal, find a safe place to sleep that night and not knowing what the future holds – but they also feel deep shame about it, too. They feel shame about being poor.

A lot of people who wind up at the Mission have made some bad choices in their lives. The difference between their bad choices and, say, mine or yours, is mostly that they’ve had no safety net or support system, bad luck, or have run into problems with the law under unauspicious circumstances, like not being white. Guests at the Mission are probably 90% people of color. Past incarceration for petty crimes is very common, and this has two effects you see over and over: it makes it really hard to find a job and it makes people angry. Anger, combined with the stress and grinding hardship and indignities of being poor, puts a lot of people constantly on edge, and for good reason. They should be angry. Seeing how “the system” treats people from this perspective has been deeply educational for me.

The Mission runs on donations and they’re not enough. As you can imagine, it’s an expensive service to keep up. We mostly serve food donated by restaurants around New York City, so a lot of my work in the kitchen winds up being picking through and sorting huge bagfuls of old, unused food. The other day, I probably threw out 200-300 pounds of bread. We get so much bread, we can’t possibly use it all (and a lot of it is bad). That $13 sandwich you almost bought yesterday at [trendy NYC lunchy chain]? I ate it the other day, for free. We get a ton of leftover rice, chicken and produce inventory that stores haven’t sold and have to get rid of. Baked goods. We always, always have really excellent leftover donated cupcakes at the Mission. A few weeks ago, they sent me home with a surplus banana cream pie. They had so many cakes already, they couldn’t use them all.

Meanwhile, the Mission also recently had to cut its addiction recovery program because there’s just not enough money. Donors just don’t want to touch addiction recovery, and there are few or no public sources of funding. This is totally bonkers from a public policy perspective, but there you go. A few months ago, we had the last graduation ceremony for the recovery program. (I sorta live-tweeted it.) Grown men stood up before a crowd of their peers, family and friends and wept that if not for the Mission, they would be dead.

Sometimes, we have tourists come by to work a shift. French, Danish, Brazilian, church groups from Ohio, you name it. A group of South Koreans was in one morning a few weeks ago. As we chopped old vegetables, I asked them what a homeless shelter in Seoul looks like. You know what they said? They laughed. “We don’t have places like this in Korea,” they replied.

Of course, there are poor and homeless people in any city of ten million plus. But, they clarified, the state operates services for the poor. There’s free housing if you need it. Food. Healthcare, of course. In other words, there is a social safety net supported by taxpayers that ensures that no one who wants help cannot get it. The answer is similar from every tourist from another wealthy country. A Danish volunteer a few months ago just shook her head and looked at me when I asked the same question. “I can’t believe that this is America too,” she said.

This is getting longer than I anticipated, and I have a lot more to say. So I’ll leave you with two things I’ve learned in the last year.

One – you, and every single person you know, is far closer to homelessness and desperate poverty than you probably think. It can happen to pretty much anyone. I meet people regularly who become poor due to medical disasters (see Birthing Babies). Addiction. Just plain bad luck – and, yes, some bad decisions that affect most people very differently than they expect.

Two – the Mission is a faith-based organization. I’m not a Christian, but grew up in a deeply religious, conservative rural area, and as a result have long held a lot of cynicism about the professed values of American Christianity. (I still do.) But seeing people work to help the poor out of Christian conviction, without judgment on the basis of their skin color, faith, sexuality, creed or otherwise has been eye-opening. It really is Christianity in practice, rather than in words only. I admire it. I only wish it were more common.

So… that’s the New York Rescue Mission. It’s important to me. Two things to leave you with:

  • If your company/organization wants to come volunteer (or better… support financially), drop me a line! I can help hook it up.
  • Just curious what it’s like down at the Mission? C’mon down and hang out. I’m there every week, mostly cutting produce or sorting through food. Hope to see you there.

 

 


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