Backpacks For The Street is a 501c3 public charity, and national grassroots movement to bring compassion and dignity to people living on the streets, by providing backpacks filled with life necessities for someone who is homeless, including food, clothing, toiletries, hygiene products, gloves and Mylar emergency thermal blankets in winter, handbooks with a complete listing of food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, and much more. Since March, BFTS has given out more than 1,500 packs, over 12,000 maxi-pads and tampons, and we are on schedule to exceed our goal of 5,000 blankets this winter.
We are out on the streets every day of the year. Homelessness doesn’t take a sick day, a holiday or a snow day. This is one area that is 24/7, and there is always someone who needs assistance.
“What I love about our program is that we don’t just go and hand off a backpack and walk away. We spend time with the people we help. Treating everyone with dignity and respect is most important,” says Jeffrey Newman, co-founder of BFTS. “Too many people who are homeless feel invisible, and tossed aside. We want them to know, we see them. Nothing says marginalized more than being ignored, as if you don’t exist.”
BFTS is the first program under Together Helping Others Inc, a 501c3 full-service nonprofit for the homeless founded by Newman and his partner Jayson Conner, who was homeless for two years himself, in March, 2018.
In 2019, THO will begin providing access to services and assistance not currently available, including free haircuts throughout all five boroughs (which actually kicks off in December, 2018 in Harlem), and other essential needs such as laundry services.
“When I pass someone who’s living on the street, I don’t view them as less than, or worthless. I see a person, a human being, who is struggling. The idea that these beautiful people are so easily discarded by society is infuriating. You don’t throw a life simply because they are struggling or suffering, be it by mental illness, or simply a rough patch. You stop and say, ‘how can we help,'” explains Newman.
Since getting involved with helping the homeless, and volunteering at local soup kitchens and food pantries, the J’s have talked to hundreds of men and women, many of whom often feel ignored and invisible in a broken system that shuffles them like objects, not people. “There are guys who have cried in my arms, never knowing where they’ll be shuttled to, or if they’ll eat, much less get to take a shower,” says Conner. “I’ve had parents crying on my shoulder, terrified that they won’t have a place to stay or that their children won’t be safe in a shelter.”
But Newman and Conner say they’ve seen the power that compassion and kindness, and a hot meal or a kind word, can give hope to people struggling with their circumstances. That’s why you can find the J’s on most days bringing food and beverages around to the homeless, giving Mylar thermal emergency blankets our during the winter, and always leaving home with a couple backpacks in tow. They also make breakfast and cocoa for some of the homeless guys who live in their neighborhood, many of whom they now consider to be part of their extended family.
“We operate with one mantra. That’s ‘that a person’s circumstances does not make them any less worthy of kindness and compassion, or to be treated with dignity and respect.’ Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. None of us are better than anyone else. It’s only together, as a society, that we can make a difference,” adds Newman.
The program is also making sure to address the various needs of the diverse homeless community by having special add-on kits, including FemPacks, with tampons and sanitary napkins for feminine hygiene.
“We know the backpack isn’t going to get them off the street, and it’s not going to cure homelessness,” he says. “But it gives them hope. It lets them know they’re not alone. You can’t imagine the positive impact that can make.”