NEW YORK—How many blocks are there in Manhattan? More than 6,000. Over the last month, volunteers from a coalition of ministries to the homeless have canvassed every block on the island in a massive outreach called Don’t Walk By.
Thousands of volunteers talked with those living on the street and in the subways, provided them with emergency kits, and directed them to nearby churches where they can get a hot meal and medical care.
These ministries have been blanketing Manhattan for the last five winters, when the homeless population is most vulnerable. From 2009 to 2012, volunteers met about 4,000 homeless, and about 1,700 have returned with volunteers to neighborhood churches for care. For many homeless people, the conversations on the street are the beginning of a relationship that leads to rehabilitation programs, jobs, and permanent housing.
The ministries concluded their month-long project this past weekend, as new numbers emerged showing homelessness in New York at a record-high. In January, the city’s public shelters housed 50,000 people, a 19 percent surge from a year ago, according to a report from the Coalition for the Homeless released Tuesday. The number represents a 73 percent rise from a decade ago. The latest numbers do not include those who are homeless because of Superstorm Sandy.
“New York is facing a homeless crisis worse than any time since the Great Depression,” said Mary Brosnahan, president of the Coalition for the Homeless, in releasing the report.
The Bowery Mission, a private Christian shelter, has also had record numbers this year, and the ministry doesn’t believe the record is attributable to residual homelessness from Sandy. Bowery has seen a 10 percent increase in those staying in their shelter this January compared to last January, and a 17 percent increase from 2011. Just a couple nights ago, Bowery’s men’s shelter on the Lower East Side broke its own record, housing 180 in addition to the 82 already in its program.
“I would say the economy is really destroying us,” said James Macklin, the director of outreach at the Bowery Mission. As he came to work Wednesday morning, Macklin, who has historical perspective because he has worked at the Bowery for the last 25 years, noticed the subways were filled with people sleeping. Many who come to the Bowery are jobless, but others have jobs and can’t make ends meet. He said the recession has hit people working minimum-wage jobs the hardest.
“We’re living in a time where people have two choices: You pay your rent, you don’t eat. You eat, and you’re homeless,” Macklin said.
New York City is obligated by law to provide shelter to anyone in need. Thus the crowded city shelters can have a warehouse feel, and some are dangerous. Anecdotally, in a recent Don’t Walk By outreach, many homeless were interested in the help offered when they heard it was from a private shelter.
“You don’t have to worry about getting beat up here,” said Macklin, speaking from Bowery’s men’s shelter. “I’m not condemning [public shelters]. We have something going on that’s different than that. We’re trying to fix the human being so he can get out of the condition he’s in, not enabling him to stay where he’s at.”
The ministries’ staff trained volunteers for a recent Don’t Walk By outreach in February, telling them to focus first on being interested in the homeless person as a human being—to ask for their story, for example. The campaign is directed at helping the homeless but also reorienting the aloof attitudes of well-to-do New Yorkers.
“New Yorkers are kind of lone rangers,” said Brian Johansson, the Bowery Mission’s vice president.
For the monthlong outreach, lead organizations divided Manhattan into neighborhoods, then assigned teams of volunteers to walk every street in each neighborhood and others to ride the subways. Each neighborhood had a designated anchor church where doctors and nurses set up a makeshift clinic, and cooks made hot meals. Teams on the street invited the homeless back to the anchor church, where they received care and then had the option of entering a private shelter program. Don’t Walk By has brought hundreds of homeless into the ministries’ shelters.
The project is the work of six faith-based organizations: the Bowery Mission (the project’s founder), the Relief Bus, Street Life Ministries, Betel of America, Hope for New York, and New York City Rescue Mission.