Opportunities Academy is a post-secondary school that caters to and empowers students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Currently, homelessness in New York City is at an all-time high. As of April 2019, more than 14 percent of the nation’s homeless population lives in the city. That’s almost 71,000 people, and while the majority spend their nights in shelters, nearly 5,000 sleep on the street.
Jeffrey Newman and Jayson Connor decided to reach out directly to that population — offering backpacks containing essential supplies directly to the homeless through an outreach organization they call Backpacks for the Street.
“We had been working with the homeless for ten years, volunteering at soup kitchens twice a week, and it’s hard at some point to not get emotionally involved, and think, ‘We’ve got to do more,’” says co-founder Jeffrey Newman.
“We decided to create a nonprofit called Together Helping Others to put together programming to fight homelessness in New York CIty. While we waited to get our 501(C)(3), we wanted to start giving out backpacks. I called a dozen friends and within 72 hours, we had raised money for 50 backpacks. From there it took off and the response has been overwhelming.”
Since its inception in March 2018, Backpacks for the Street has given out more than 2,000 backpacks, 14,000 feminine hygiene products, and 8,000 Mylar blankets.
Each backpack contains around 40-50 items, changing seasonally, including things like gloves, hand warmers, and blankets in the winter and sunscreen and water bottles in the summer. Packs also typically include shelf-stable food items, first aid kits, and hygiene products.
“Part of figuring out what to include is trial and error, and speaking with the homeless,” Newman says. “Part of it is also Jayson’s personal experience, because he used to be homeless.”
Connor experienced homelessness in the early 2000s for two years, a time he vividly remembers when encountering other homeless people today.
“When I see a person on the street and they’re my age when I was homeless fifteen years ago, it’s impactful, I don’t even really know how to articulate how I feel...I will get very emotional, because I know where they’re at in their mindset. When you see someone with a broken soul, it’s heartbreaking. It is very hard living on the street,” he says.
Backpacks for the Street uses volunteers to pass out backpacks around the city, allowing people who haven’t experienced homelessness a chance to interact with and better understand homeless people.
“When one of our volunteers interacts with a homeless person for the first time, it humanizes them again. It opens the volunteer's eyes and helps them see a person with a family and a life, not just someone on the street,” Connor says.
Connor and Newman pass out backpacks every couple of days, and also recruit volunteers to pass out special gift bags they assemble for holidays like Christmas and Easter.
“Stocking the backpacks is a great bonding experience. Giving them away is even a more rewarding experience because it makes you realize that no matter what you may be going through, it probably is less stressful than being on the streets of NYC,” volunteer Emil Gavrailov says.
Backpacks for the Street is one direct-service component of Jeffrey and Jayson’s larger organization, Together Helping Others, which offers additional programming for homeless people across the city.
“We are starting to offer laundry services, as well as hair cuts, and we have plans to re-open closed shower areas in public parks to be able to offer them to people in need,” Newman says. “We also want to show people how to access already available public services.”
While many of New York City’s homeless population makes it to soup kitchens similar to where Newman and Connor formerly volunteered, those who don’t are much less likely to access available services like mental health care or food stamps.
“Some people have no idea where to start and we want to come to them, not to wait for them to come to us,” Newman says.
Ultimately, the goal of Backpacks for the Street and Together Helping Others is offering simple kindness and compassion to the city’s homeless population, with hopes to expand to other cities across the country.
“We want to prove that homelessness isn’t a death sentence, or even a life sentence,” Newman says.
“We have a chance to change that path. Our goal is not to be judgmental; we want to make sure people get the services they need."
Meghan Holmes is an Alabama-born, New Orleans-based freelance writer and documentarian. She has a master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and is a fellow at Loyola's Institute of Environmental Communication. She also serves as project director of a nonprofit, Righteous Fur, working to connect regional artists and designers to nutria trappers in south Louisiana.Learn More
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