James Allen Walker for WORLD

6,718 blocks

Homelessness | One rescue mission is covering them all in a bid to feed New York's growing numbers of homeless

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

NEW YORK-The New York Rescue Alliance training video shows homeless people holding wry signs:

"Brad and Angelina are going to have twins and I need money for a gift."

"Desperate need of hair weave. Please help."

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One particularly sardonic sign skewered people who hurry past: "I have invisibleman-itis. Please donate so I can be cured."

The Rescue Alliance is trying to cure the "invisibleman-itis" of the homeless, but with more than a donation. Last year, the Alliance's 1,200 volunteers made contact with 1,300 homeless people while walking all 6,718 blocks in Manhattan, inviting each homeless person they met to get food, shelter, and a place in a program that offers lasting rehabilitation. This year, they're undertaking the same task.

The homeless and jobless gather in cities. The national unemployment rate is 10 percent but, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 125 metropolitan areas reported jobless rates higher than 10 percent in November-up from 21 cities a year earlier. Thirteen percent of those cities reported jobless rates higher than 15 percent. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2007 about 77 percent of the U.S. homeless population lived in urban places and over 60 percent of the homeless population lived in metropolitan areas of greater than 1 million people.

At All Angels Episcopal Church on Jan. 9, a professional chef cooked pot roast. Visitors found fresh clothing and the opportunity to enter any of the programs run by the seven Christian homeless organizations involved.

Tennessee natives from an evangelistic ministry called Cross Carriers had sold doughnuts to raise the money to come to New York to help the Alliance. They had served food in a homeless shelter back home in Tennessee; now they headed 46 blocks downtown to the winding corridors of New York's Penn Station to find homeless people to feed.

Deborah sat on a bench, wearing hiking shoes with no socks, a couple of cheap silver necklaces over her dirty shirt, and a grimy blue plaid scarf wrapped around her head. "Are you hungry?" they asked, and they offered her food and shelter. She asked just one question about the shelter: "Is there rats in there?" When they said no, she got to her feet and followed.

On the way upstairs to take Deborah to the buses, the group passed a man unconscious in the corner, huddled inside a camo hoodie under a blue windbreaker. Crystal Brooks and Erika Uberman coaxed him awake with the offer of food. He staggered to his feet and gathered in his hand his drawstring pants-a grubby gold color, several sizes too big-then followed them. But by then, Deborah had changed her mind and wandered off. The man stopped suddenly, shook his head and mumbled, "I'm in the system," perhaps meaning he's avoiding the police. He walked the other way.

The group moved on, leaving Rescue Alliance cards with those who turned down its offer and always offering to pray. After a prayer, a bleary older man pulled out of his frayed coat a large beer can wrapped in a plastic bag and said, "I'm an alcoholic but I believe in God. I'm an alcoholic but I believe in God." He turned down the group's offer of help for his addiction.

Members of the group succeeded, however, with a woman who said she has lived, intermittently homeless, in New York for 16 years. An older man lying on the floor between two steel pillars, next to a young man charging his iPhone, came too. Another older man, wearing buttonless pants that were too loose but three inches too short, held his pants gathered up in his hands while he walked upstairs. Reed Uberman, the lanky Cross Carriers leader, commiserated with him about finding pants that fit when you're tall.

On the way out of Penn Station to take a group to the church for food, the Cross Carriers passed the man with the camo hoodie and drawstring pants, sitting with his back against the wall, sucking a lollipop.

"Change your mind, come with us," Brooks coaxed. He shook his head.


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