Tag Archives: homeless

Giving to Go

10 Jul

So sometimes at my office we order lunch as a group and everyone eats together, and as a thank you for working hard and making money, the company foots the bill. It becomes very apparent when the food arrives that no one held back when ordering, and the amount of food is significantly more abundant than it would have been had everyone been asked to pay for themselves. “Get an extra pizza, just in case” “Let’s get a couple orders of fries, you know, just for the table” “Eggrolls for everyone! We’re rich!” The result is a ridiculous amount of leftovers that eventually get thrown out.

The problem is that I hate seeing perfectly good food go to waste. On previous occasions, I would combat this problem by eating myself into a food coma; unfortunately, putting your head down on your desk and napping for an hour isn’t as acceptable as it used to be in say, 2nd grade.

My next attempt to save waste was taking leftovers home and eating them for dinner with my boyfriend. There were many problems with this, however. First and most important, is that I ride a bike to and from work. Dangerous as it is riding in NYC, the danger increased ten-fold when I hung bags of pad thai and spring rolls from my handlebars and attempted to navigate through midtown. Also, everyone thought I was crazy. I became the office garbage disposal; I once came back from the restroom to find a half-eaten sandwich on my desk with a note: ‘I thought you might want this -xo’. No, I don’t want your soggy chips and pickles. Mission aborted.

Then I realized one day this past winter, while walking to the subway (I’m not THAT committed of a biker to ride in the cold) that each day, I pass at least one person begging for food and money. It’s a sad reality of living in NYC.  So the next time everyone ordered lunch, I brought one meal with me for my walk home and not surprisingly, there was someone in the subway entrance asking for money. I asked him if he was hungry, and when he said yes I asked if he liked chinese food. He laughed and said yes, so I gave him my General Tso’s Chicken with an egg roll on the side. After that day, I began packing bags of food each time we had leftovers, and handed them out on my way home. Between where I work and home, Herald Square and the 1/2/3 Stop at 72nd Street, I can usually unload 2 or 3 meals. If I can’t find anyone I wind up bringing it home, but I usually have no trouble finding someone hungry.

I’m not sure if this is okay-I know that it would be better to point these people in the direction of a shelter or somewhere to get a hot, free meal. And I have. Is it rude to give someone your leftovers? I don’t think so. They’re hungry. I have food. Seems okay to me. It’s not like I’m having dinner parties with friends and feeding them my co-worker’s scraps.

So maybe you want to try this yourself; here are some tips I can offer based solely on my own experiences:

-Put everything in a bag. I once gave a man an apple and bottle of water while he was begging for change; he thanked me and asked if I had a bag he could put it in-he couldn’t hold his change cup and the apple/water at the same time. It’s not like they can put it in the fridge for later, you know? Bag it.

Don’t go on a 2am crusade through the park by yourself; be safe and smart about who you’re approaching and where. It may be a good idea to avoid the guy wearing wireless headphones who swears to himself and warns anyone within earshot about the impending doom of the Apocalypse.

-If you can, include a fork, knife, and some napkins. Just because they’re hungry doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to eat like a civilized human being.

– Giving them the original containers is best, as I’ve seen homeless people use tupperware and other recycled containers to gather water or other things that they can then save for later.

-Don’t just throw food at someone-ask first. Also, I tend to only approach people with signs or other things that clearly indicate they are in need; it’s probably pretty embarrassing to approach someone who turns out to just be tying their shoe on the ground.

-There are organizations who travel the city handing out food every day, like the Coalition for the Homeless, or the Bowery Mission. If you’re not comfortable doing this solo, get hooked up with one of these agencies and join their fleet.

Have you done this before? If so, what happened? Please feel free to post any questions or comments.

Delivering Meals with Coalition for the Homeless

9 Dec

What: Delivering meals to the homeless and hungry

Where: Traveling by van throughout Manhattan, through New York Cares

When: Saturdays and Sundays (with New York Cares), 6:45pm-10pm

Last Saturday I helped deliver meals with Coalition for the Homeless who, according to their website, “Each night, a fleet of vans delivers life-saving meals of hearty stew, bread, fresh fruit, and juice or milk to approximately 1,000 people. During the past year, the Grand Central Food Program served more than 365,000 meals to homeless and hungry New Yorkers.”

You’ll meet up with the other volunteers and 3 vans outside of a church in Murray Hill. After everyone checks in, you’ll be assigned a route (there are three, hence the three vans) and be on your way to Upper Manhattan, Downtown, or the Bronx. There are designated stops along each route, which have been in place for years, ensuring that those who need to eat will know where to go, simply because the Coalition will always be there, in the same place at relatively the same time, every day of the week.

I was in the Downtown Van, which made 7 stops: 35th St. under FDR Drive, Housing Court/Chinatown @ Lafayette & Leonard St., Staten Island Ferry, Sunshine Hotel/Bowery Mission, 6th Ave. bet. Washington & Waverly Pl., Madison Square Park, and last was Penn Station/KMart. The vans will usually have 3-5 volunteers, including an experienced driver. The first thing we had to do once we got on our way was to begin opening plastic bags, to save time for later when we were to hand them out.

At every stop, each volunteer has a specific responsibility and everything is done quickly-its basically an assembly line. The clients (people waiting for food), will line up and receive a plastic bag from a volunteer, as two more volunteers open the back doors of the van and open boxes of food. Each night the meal will vary; last week we had oranges, milk, juice, turkey sandwiches and mustard. Clients will walk up to the van, bags open, and volunteers will simply put everything inside for them. Some people were very specific about what they wanted: one person told me I was crazy if I thought he wanted a milk carton in his bag, and to place it in his hand. Silly me, I guess. Other people will take everything, and then swap or give away the things they don’t want to other people in line; it’s interesting to see an entire community of people, so downtrodden, helping each other more than most people in NYC with a house to sleep in. But I digress…

A few things about the Chinatown stop, which I was told in advance to allay any panic: there are usually about 100-150 people at this stop, separated into two lines, men and women. This is not a requirement of the Coalition, it’s just something that happens only in Chinatown. This group is also very pushy and most of them do not speak any English, so things get very tense. Be prepared. For some reason, the night I volunteered there was only one line, which we later assumed was done in an attempt to confuse us. Or maybe they just didn’t feel like making two lines-I have no idea. Regardless, because there were so many people with heavy coats and hats and gloves, some got back into line and claimed they never got food, demanding a bag, and we were unable to tell who was who. It got a little hectic as we tried to determine who had already received food, relying mainly on the volunteer who had handed out the bags. Everything got resolved after about 10 minutes, and most clients left happy except for 1 very old, very fragile woman, who refused to leave without a second bag. We were back in the van pulling away, as she began banging on the side of the van with her cane, yelling in Chinese. My feelings are that if you’re that desperate for food, 80+ years old employing your cane as a weapon, you probably really need it. We all agreed and the head volunteer got out and gave her more.

As I’ve probably said before, the projects I most enjoy doing are those which involve direct contact with people, as it allows you to see the difference you’re making. It feels really good. I also got to talk briefly with some of the clients; one who gave me a quick history of a nearby church dating back to the 1700’s, and another who hands out his own plastic bags before the van gets there, as a way of saying thank you. Other things to know:

  • Don’t be afraid to hold your ground to anyone being aggressive, attempting to get more food or cutting the line. They know the rules, you know the rules. Eventually they will leave or follow instructions.
  • Dress for the weather! It’s December right now-drinking hot cocoa with the heat pumping in the van is not only not an option, it’s a slap in the face to the people waiting for food who may be sleeping outside that night. So don’t forget your scarf, and get out there..
  • Don’t wear gloves, unless they’re the latex kind. Its inevitable that something will be leaking and getting everything else wet, be it milk or juice. Utilize the hand sanitizer after each stop that is available in the van, or bring your own.
  • No one can get seconds until everyone on line gets firsts, if there is even enough. Check with the head volunteer if you’re unsure; they will be able to determine if there is enough food in the van for the remaining stops and clients.
  • Coalition for the Homeless has four other programs that depend on volunteers, in addition to the Grand Central Food Program: Camp Homeward Bound, the Development Department, First Step , and the Advocacy Department. Click here to read more about these opportunities and contact information to sign up.

How to Have A Successful Coat Drive

19 Nov

A great way to volunteer your time during the winter is to organize a coat drive. I had one last year and it was very successful: I was able to donate over 60 coats to Homes for the Homeless, an organization that assists homeless families in NYC. Through the process, I learned some do’s and don’ts for hosting a coat drive…

Before you start collecting, you may need to get permission from your landlord, boss, or whoever else may be in charge of the space where you intend to put a coat drive box. I live in a building that has a co-op board and building manager, all of whom had to approve a written proposal that I was asked to submit. I also collected coats at work, and so I needed my managers to give me the okay, since it would undoubtedly lead to (and it did), a large number of coats sitting around for a few days in the office. Some of the questions you should be prepared to answer:

-Where do you intend to store the coats after the box fills up?

-What do you intend to do with coats not suitable for donation?

-Where are you donating the coats?

The answers will vary from person to person, but just be prepared for someone to be annoyed with you and your box full of donations. There is always someone who will rain on your giving parade.

If you plan on having the donation box in your home, be careful where you are advertising your drive: putting an ad on Craigslist or posting flyers on the street may bring some undesirable people your way, and I don’t recommend it. Instead, you can keep the drive small, and tell all your friends and family to bring their donations to your apartment. Alternatively, maybe there is a community center nearby, a bodega, or some other public space, where you can offer to host the drive and take responsibility for clearing out donations.

Now that you have a space to put your box, you have to find one big enough to hold your donations. You can buy boxes at a store like Staples, but that’s going to cost you money and who wants to spend money when you don’t have to? Think about stuff that comes in big boxes: refrigerators, furniture, clothing. Now think of stores that sell these items and give them a call, asking if they have any large boxes (in good condition) they want to get rid of. Chances are, you’ll be able to snag a few boxes and re-use them for your drive. Refrigerator not included.

The next step is finding a place to donate all of the coats you collect. You should have this decision made before you start; if you’re arranging for a pick-up date, you’ll want that day to coincide with the day after your drive ends, so that you’re not storing boxes of stranger’s coats in your home for too long. If you’re donating to another drive, like New York Cares, you can take coats as you get them to drop-off sites, so that you don’t have to worry about storage. Either way, know where the coats are going. I’ll list some places at the end of the post that you can call and ask if they are in need of coat donations.

You should now be ready to start collecting coats! You can click here to download (free) flyers for your drive, and I’ll even personalize it for you if you ask nicely. You can post these flyers in your building or office, or email them to family and friends. Get the word out in advance, so that people have time to look through their closets and say goodbye to their precious coats. Set a definitive time span for your drive, and make sure you’ve mentioned that only RE-USEABLE, GENTLY-USED COATS should be donated. You can also mention on your flyer or email those things that shouldn’t be donated:  gloves, hats, abandoned kittens, garbage, etc. You’d be surprised to find out what some people will put in an unattended box, so it’s wise to be specific…And it’s always a good idea provide contact information for anyone who has questions about what to donate, where their donations are going, etc.

Other things to know:

-Did I mention you can download free flyers here?

-To make your donation box more appealing to prospective donators, wrap it in some festive wrapping paper. Don’t put out a box that is fortified with a roll of duct tape and sagging-its an eyesore and not good for business…

-Tell people where the coats will be donated. It makes the drive more personal to each person if they can say: “Hey, I helped out the Salvation Army today,” instead of “I put my coat in an unmarked box and have no idea where its going. I think the lady on the 6th floor may be stealing coats for resale.”

-After your drive is finished, follow-up with an email or another flyer that says how many coats were collected. If you receive a thank you letter from the organization that received the donation, photocopy and share it. People like to know they’ve made a difference, and it feels good to know you were a part of something.

Find a Place to Donate(Always call ahead before showing up with coats):

NYC Stuff Exchange (will help you find places in your zip code)

New York Cares Coat Drive (December 1-31)

Covenant House

Salvation Army

You can also check with local churches, shelters, synagogues, and other community-centered places to see if they are in need of coats this winter.

There are tons of places to donate, so don’t think that this list is exhaustive. If you’re an organization that is in need of coat donations, please reply below with your information and location!

Email or comment with any additional suggestions for hosting a successful coat drive,or tell us about your own drive and how it went!

Happy Collecting!



Art Explorers at Nazareth Housing

4 Aug

What: Hang out with kids, do some arts and crafts

Where: Nazareth Housing, East Village, through New York Cares

When: Thursday, 5:45-730pm

This project took place in the E. 4th Street building, one of three locations Nazareth Housing operates in the East Village. This is where the youth programs are held in addition to other services, such as educational workshops for adults and computer literacy classes. While the parents were taking a class in financial planning, the volunteers were supposed to be hanging out with their children; doing arts & crafts, playing cards, talking. The purpose of this project is not only to help the parents, but also to keep the kids entertained and out of trouble. Mostly ages 3-9, the children here are often unhappy, because of their living situation (or lack thereof). You’re here to have a good time with them and make them feel good. Doesn’t sound  too hard. I’ll have to go again when there’s actually kids there.

This project  was unfortunately a bust. There was a mix up in the scheduling of a field trip, and the kids weren’t there the day I volunteered. I was disappointed, but even more so after talking with the New York Cares team leader Muthu, who talked up the program so much I thought it may be better than Disney World. Maybe. He was a wealth of volunteer information, spewing out names of organizations and places to volunteer with kids for about a half an hour. Hopefully one day I’ll get to speak with him more about what he’s done at Nazareth and beyond, but for now, I can tell you what I learned..

According to their website,Nazareth Housing is committed to the promotion of housing stability and economic independence among poor families and youth of New York City, through the provision of: transitional shelter, homelessness prevention services, self-sufficiency education, supportive housing, youth programming.”. A lot of the residents who live here are single mothers and children, coming from volatile relationships involving domestic abuse. They often come with a bag on their back and nothing else; this is one reason that Nazareth always has food out. At any time of day or night, you can get a meal, no questions asked.

Currently, Nazareth Housing oversees 40 units of permanent housing and thirteen units of transitional housing. The great thing about this organization is the sense of order they restore in people’s lives. They offer a safe haven for those who can no longer afford to live in their home,be it for financial reasons or for their own personal safety. They then receive free services to help them get back on their feet and living independently; meanwhile, their children are offered educational programs,social outings, and other enriching activities to ensure that they too can grow and learn in Nazareth. The end result is a person or family who is able to retain and remain in their own stable housing. Nazareth Housing is not a glorified handout; it’s an opportunity to get your life back.

But there is so much MORE to know-you should really read their website and find out. Here’s some other things to know:

-If you sign up for this particular project, feel free to bring a deck of cards, a boardgame, crayons, anything. You can take it home with you or leave it behind for future use; either way, it’ll give the kids a greater variety of fun things they can do with you for 2 hours.

-Don’t have time to go volunteer, but really want to help Nazareth Housing? They have a wishlist of donations you can choose from and it can all be done online. Alternatively, they also take used furniture and household goods. But don’t just drop off your old Ikea couch in front of their door and speed off; check out the details here, make a phone call to the program assistant. Don’t donate anything you wouldn’t give to a friend; they don’t need your beer-stained futon from college any more than you do.

-You’re probably hungry aren’t you. After volunteering for two hours right at dinner time, you’re gonna be hungry. I can tell. After you’re done, head over to Pommes Frites on 2nd Ave between St. Marks and 7th. Belgium fries with your choice of 25 dippings sauces and mayo’s. You’ll never look at french fries the same way again…unless you go back for seconds.

Monday Night Hospitality

1 Apr

What: A meal service program

Where: All Souls Church (Upper East Side), through New York Cares

When: Monday night, 6:30-8:45 pm

This was my first time volunteering in NYC as a part of this website, and it was a great experience. When you first arrive at All Souls Church, there is an office just inside to your left; you can tell the person sitting in there that you’re with New York Cares, and they’ll tell you where to go next. You’ll be given a brief orientation in a room off the main dining area, and then volunteers will be split into groups of 4 or 5 people which will each be given a color. When entering the dining room, you’ll see tables set up (tablecloths, ‘church china’, flowers and all) labeled by color and number, and upwards of 200 hungry people. Things get hectic really fast. At first I froze; some people were holding up their bowls asking for soup, some people yelled, others waited patiently. I just got in line for soup, took my pitcher, and began doling out portions to people sitting at my tables. Two hours fly by, and you’ll end the night breaking down tables and drying dishes. Other things you should know:

  • There are roughly 30 meal service volunteers, plus maybe 15 more in the kitchen. Not everyone is from New York Cares, so feel free to talk to other people and see where they come from and what they’re about while you wait for dinner to start.
  • Wear comfortable shoes; you’ll be on your feet the entire time.
  • No one gets seconds until everyone get firsts (including people waiting outside for a seat to free up). People will ask if they can be the first person you give seconds to (since they may eventually run out of food); this isn’t a good agreement to make, as it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to keep the promise. Just say ‘I’ll do my best’ and move on.
  • Don’t worry about having experience waiting on tables; no one is judging you.
  • Stick to your section! But if you do mess up and serve someone from another group/color, the worst that you’ve done is given someone extra food. Don’t sweat it.
  • If you get confused, just ask a fellow volunteer or your group leader what to do. Everyone is there to help others, including you.
  • Everything is very regimented and organized. Just go with the flow and you’ll be fine.