Jeffrey Newman and Jayson Conner came up with the idea for launching BFTS in February 2018. They were just beginning work on Together Helping Others Inc, a 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 content to sit idly by, and not be actively doing something for people living on the street. That’s when one of them said, “why don’t we kick off a backpacks program.” And the other immediately responded with an “absolutely!”
It was a natural extension of what they’ve already been doing. For the past decade, Jeffrey and Jayson have been devoting two days a week, rarely missing a day, volunteering with the homeless and hungry in New York City, and getting to know many of the people they were helping.
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 Jeffrey and Jayson but for the 19 volunteers who had never done anything like this before, many of whom were suddenly seeing the plight of the homeless up close for the first time.
“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,” says co-founder Jeffrey Newman. “It’s not ‘those other people.’ It could happen to any of us.”
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.
Since getting involved with helping the homeless, and volunteering at local soup kitchens and food pantries, they’ve talked to hundreds of men and women, many of whom often feel ignored and invisible in a broken system that shuffles them between shelters in different boroughs, never knowing where they’ll be or if they’ll eat, much less get to take a clean shower. They’ve had parents crying on their shoulders, terrified that they won’t have a place to stay or that their children will have to go with them to a shelter.
But they’ve also experienced seeing how compassion and kindness, and a hot meal or a kind word, makes a difference to people struggling with their circumstances. That’s why you can find Jeffrey and Jayson 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.
With the backpacks, people living on the streets are finding hope in knowing that there are people who care. One of the most important “must haves” in developing Backpacks For The Street for Jeffrey and Jayson was training their team of volunteers to take time talking to, and spending time with, the people they give the backpacks
“It’s heartbreaking when you hear some of these stories. It’s important to be compassionate and empathetic,” says Conner, who knows this reality all too well. He was homeless himself for nearly two years in San Francisco, and later New York City. “You never think it can happen to you until it happens to you. Then when it does, you feel hopeless.”
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.
“No one should feel hopeless or helpless, or worse, invisible,” adds Newman. “There are a lot of great organizations helping people. But it’s NOT enough. More MUST be done.”
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.
BFTS also makes sure to have information about resources for LGBT youths, as well as condoms and 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.
For more info on how you can help, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.