The idea to create a backpack program for the homeless came about in late February, 2018, during a brain storming session. Jeffrey Newman and Jayson Conner were beginning the preliminary work on Together Helping Others Inc, their full service nonprofit for the homeless. Realizing that it would take a good year or longer to really create the kind of nonprofit they felt is needed, they were not content to sit idly by and not be actively doing something to help people living on the street. That’s when one of the J’s said, “why don’t we kick off with a backpacks program.” And the other immediately responded with an “absolutely!”
Three weeks later, Backpacks For The Street, had their first event: 75 backpacks, filled with food, toiletries, and life necessities — collectively totaling more the 5,000 individual pieces — given out to the homeless in midtown Manhattan, with the help of 19 volunteers.
It was quite an emotional evening too, not only for the J’s, but for the volunteers, many of whom had never done anything like this before, and were suddenly seeing the plight of the homeless in a different way than ever before.
Suddenly, they were putting a face and a name to someone who was living on the street. “It humanizes the issue,” says Newman. “It’s no longer something abstract or foreign. It’s right there, living and breathing. And, once you do that, you see what you’ve chosen not to see before. It can’t be unseen.”
Studies show that one in four Americans is a paycheck away from being on the street or in a shelter. More than a third of households would be unable to cover their rent and living expenses for over a month if a spouse or partner lost their job. According to the US Federal Reserve board, 47% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 for an emergency expense.
“It’s mind-boggling when you stop and realize how many of us are just a paycheck away or an unexpected health crisis away from losing the roof over our head or being able to afford to put food on the table,” adds Newman. “It’s not ‘those other people.’ It could happen to any of us.”
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.
“It’s heartbreaking when you hear some of these stories. It’s important to be compassionate and empathetic. You never think it can happen to you until it happens to you. Then when it does, you feel hopeless,” says Conner, who knows this reality all too well. He was homeless himself for two years in San Francisco, and later New York City.
“I know what it’s like to carry all your belongings in a plastic bag and hope you make it out of the rain or snow without the bag breaking, or getting stolen, or damaged,” he adds. “I know what it’s like to be looked at like you’re not welcome because your homeless.”
Backpacks For The Streets operates with the manta that a person’s circumstances does not make them any less deserving of kindness and compassion, or to be treated with dignity and respect.
Through this outreach, people living on the streets are finding hope in knowing that there are people who care, and people who see them, and treat them with dignity and respect.
That’s why one of the most important “must haves” in developing Backpacks For The Street for the J’s was training their team of volunteers to spend time with the people they give backpacks, talking to them, and “treating them normally, like human beings,” Newman says.”So many people who are homeless long for conversation and human contact.”
He adds, “No one should feel hopeless or helpless, or worse, invisible. Nothing says marginalized than being ignored, as if you don’t exist,” adds Newman. “No one should be treated less than as a human being simply because of circumstance.”
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. In addition, BFTS created BarkPacks, with treats and food for the canine and feline companions of people living on the street. Additionally, it also makes sure to have information about resources for LGBT youths, as well as HIV prevention and care information and resources.
Backpacks For The Street is just one of several programs being rolled out by Together Helping Others to address the needs of the homeless on a much larger and broader scale.
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