Virtual Voices

N.Y. Journal: Helping the homeless

Culture

Diamond Jones helps the homeless because she used to be one of them. Coming to New York from Virginia in her 20s, she lost her housing when she went home to a notice that the apartment was evicting the woman to whom she was paying the rent. In two months she went from staying in the upscale Warwick Hotel, to staying at a roach-ridden hotel with no lock on the door and one bathroom per floor, to sleeping in subway cars and hotel lobbies. "Not to be all spooky-spooky, but nothing but the grace of God brought me out of it," she says.

So now she volunteers to help other New York City homeless-most recently with the New York City Rescue Alliance's five-week effort to engage the homeless on every street in Manhattan. New York may have its share of needy people, but it also has its share of people who are willing to meet the needs of others. For example, I'd like to share with you the stories of the New York City Relief bus and the New York City Rescue Alliance.

The bus is a mobile soup kitchen that starts its day at the Hope Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where volunteers cook soup in vats large enough to drown in and then drive in to New York to serve it. On January 23 they parked on Ninth Avenue and 28th Street, next to Chelsea Park; opened up one side of their creaky bus, transforming it into a serving station; stirred hot chocolate with a giant metal paddle; and started to serve the people who already were there waiting for them.

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The staff knew the regulars by name. Some of them seemed on their way to work but seemed to have nowhere else they needed to be. So they leaned against the park fence, drinking their hot chocolate, eating their rolls and soup, and coming back for seconds or thirds.

The staff comes from around the world to serve soup and help the homeless find stability and faith. Anne Teppo is Flemish-an English teacher who comes from what she calls a "good girl background" and reads the Bible to volunteers in a chirpy accent. She stayed with NYCR staff when she was traveling the globe and then decided to move across the Atlantic to work for NYCR. Eric Porter, who was an intern at Walt Disney and now lives in New Jersey, said, "I knew I wasn't happy doing what I was doing in Florida, and I knew I was called to serve the poor." Austin Bonds, the director of relief bus outreach, came from a life of drug and alcohol addiction.

Bonds helped a guy named Mike, whom he first found in the park clutching a bottle. Bonds said Mike told him, "'Man, I'm drinking. I need to change.' I just looked at him and said, 'Today's the day.'" Now Mike has been clean for 60 days and comes from Queens to Manhattan for his outpatient programs six days a week. Austin said a week earlier Mike told him he was going to give his life to Christ one day: "I said, 'Today's the day for that.'" Mike told me his next goal was to stay clean and get a job: "I believe in Jesus. I believe my life is going to get better. I have faith."

The New York City Rescue Alliance's "Don't Walk By" campaign unites New York City homeless ministries in a five-week outreach to homeless people in Manhattan. They divided borough into five zones and divided each zone into sub-zones. Team captains led 1,379 total volunteers down the streets, engaging 1,279 homeless people in all, bringing 381 to a church for food and to tell them about the long-term programs offered by ministries like the Bowery Mission.

Amy Stabeno works with the city government to help the homeless each day, but she finds the faith-based outreach more personal and intimate. "In bureaucratic organizations, when there's nothing personal it becomes numbers and meeting goals-and those things don't always necessarily really help the population that you're trying to serve," she said. "Whereas when you know them and love them, they're much more likely to really be helped than if they're another number on a sheet."

Team leader and Street Light Mission Chairman Paul Yuschak told me the goal is not just to help the homeless: "While we're out to meet the homeless and to help somebody in need, it's also to get the volunteers' awareness that there is this issue, and get them fired up so maybe they'll go home to their churches and do something and get involved in other organizations. . . . It's to also instill in them that God wants them to do something."

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