Spring Cleaning? Please take a look:

It occurred to us that we should add a list of goods that we can use for our outreach to the women and children whose lives touch ours.  Any and all men’s clothing that we receive will be brought directly to the Midnight Run in Dobbs Ferry, New York. We have been a member of the Midnight Run consortium for 27 years and work hand-in-hand with them doing monthly “midnight runs” since then.

We can use clean and gently-used baby, toddler and children’s clothing, shoes and boots. Please no used under-garments or socks. There is always a need for baby and toddler equipment, including strollers. Please no cribs or mattresses of any kind. If you are a vendor of baby and children’s wear or supplies, please email us at sharetheproject@gmail.com

We are often in need of women’s clothing, shoes, and boots in all sizes. We are always looking for plus-size women’s wear and as you clean out your closets this Spring, please remember us! Maternity clothes in all sizes are also a need and we will take them off your hands.

As prom time nears, please remember that there are many teens in our area who can use the help of a clean, gently-used prom gown or suit.

Our email address is sharetheproject@gmail.com – please do contact us and help us help others!

With our deepest thanks,

SHARE the Project, Inc.

 

 

How can this be? Or, “Welcome to the World of the Indigent”

After a world-weary weekend, things appear to be returning to some sense of routine here: the little profitable work we have is getting accomplished and there is a sense of spring-cleaning of the soul. It’s definitely a period of renewal, a time to dispose of the old and a time to embrace the newness of a Spring long-anticipated.

I wanted to touch base with Timothy who told me last week that he felt he’d remain in the hospital for the next several weeks, as the staff continued to care for his physical as well as his emotional wounds. The outline that Timothy described – in-hospital care followed by physical therapy as he learns to adjust to navigating without ten toes followed by adjusting to permanent housing (finally!) – sounded exactly as I suspected it would. A phone call to Timothy the other day proved otherwise: he was being released on Thursday. His voice was edged with despair and peppered with anger. I heard his words repeat themselves, his voice rising with each mention of how much he hated the hospital food, repeating it over and over again, a metaphor I felt, for the deep-seeded anger he had for what happened to him this past winter. He spoke nonstop, and all I could do was to listen. Timothy told me how a once-trusted friend stole money from him when he asked him to make a withdrawal from the bank.  Again, every other sentence described how the hospital food was making him sick, how the nurse seemed to stop visiting, how nothing seemed the same. He told me he took himself off of the antibiotics he was being given to thwart any infection that might occur in what remained of his feet. The telephone conversation spiraled downward as he told me that he wasn’t going to a rehabilitation facility. Apparently, Timothy’s Social Security Insurance checks would be reduced significantly while in rehab. This cannot be a solid reason to forego further treatment, I kept thinking. When I asked him where he was going to continue the recovery from his amputations, he told me that a “lady friend” offered to give him a place to sleep, in exchange for help with her rent, and as he talked on about his plan, my head went on overtime as I tried to foresee Timothy’s future change yet again, his plans to finish his degree evaporating into the thinnest of air. Is this really what you want, Timothy? Have you weighed out the consequences of each of your options?

One of the first physically disabled homeless people I met was a woman named Jackie. Jackie was a double amputee, losing both of her legs below the knee and I vividly recall seeing her race against time and traffic on the Upper West Side, trying to make it to the stops where our caravan of cars would be. She was dirty and angry – always so angry – and determined to get her fair share of food and goods and clothing. I saw her fall out of her wheelchair once, when its wheels hit a tree root in the park, throwing her a few feet from the chair. She was livid, her face turning a deep red, a color I could detect from many yards away. I heard her swear violently as she crawled to the chair quickly, hoping no one would see her. Jackie was hardly a woman who wanted to be viewed as incapable. I watched as her arms hoisted her body up to the chair, knowing that she wanted no help from anybody (goddamnit). She wheeled herself away, disappearing into one of the tunnels in the park.

A few years later, I was in the same park and saw leaning against the curved stone wall of one of the tunnels, Jackie’s wheelchair, empty. I never saw her again and no one ever knew what happened to her.

I didn’t want this for Timothy, though what I wanted wasn’t even relevant. What mattered deeply to me was what Timothy wanted for himself. There is no doubt in my mind that Timothy wants to finish his degree. There is no doubt in my mind that Timothy wants to have his own home, a luxury never afforded him. And there is no doubt in my mind that Timothy is more than capable of achieving these goals and so much more. But, in my heart of hearts, I am fearful for him, worried that he will return to the darker days of his past, losing the motivation he had just months ago. At 53, Timothy could easily just settle, and allow the chips to fall where they may.

It will be a month or so until I hear from him again. He promised he’d call me today, but until he’s able to arrange to get another phone, it’s unlikely he’ll be in touch. And on this brighter, warmer day, I’m left with nothing but doubt, niggling at me, like an unreachable itch.

 

 

And sometimes, it’s simply not comfortable…

Last night’s outreach was a cornucopia of events, a true crazy-quilt of good people who met us under a canopy of stars on a chilly, windy night in Manhattan. It has never ceased to amaze me how, despite the 26 years I have been volunteering, each “run” is a new episode. There is nothing boiler-plate about it.

Armed with 19 high schoolers, two good friends, a parent of one of the kids who was new to the experience and my daughter who truly was raised within the culture of the Run, we drove into the city darkness with no expectations at all other than to meet up with the homeless and extend ourselves in conversation. I recall how a past volunteer years ago said that the Run wasn’t about the food we bring or the clothing and blankets we distribute, but it was about the dialogue that is created between the homed and the homeless that matters. I have never forgotten that and with every introduction and briefing I have with the kids who attend, I drive that point home loud and clear. “If you walk away without having had a conversation with a homeless person, you haven’t done the Run.” Our Mantra, for certain.

Our first stop was a quiet one on the Upper West Side. The park was our backdrop and as one of the kids and I ladled hot soup into cups and poured coffee, the other kids handed out their bagged lunches, clothing and toiletry items and started to engage in conversation with these 5 or 6 homeless men and women. The bonding is often immediate and always wonderful to watch. Once the soup and coffee was handed out, I walked over to two men who looked as if they were new to the street. They were a young married couple whose Astoria, Queens apartment house caught fire, displacing them and a few others to a shelter in this Manhattan neighborhood. They were fish out of water and the kids simply eased a painful moment for them with their conversation. And by the time we packed it in to go to our next destination, these men were smiling and genuinely happy to have met this terrific group of students, offering to volunteer their help, as well, once they got settled in a new home.

And our quote of the night? “I’m a dike, so no frilly panties for me. I’d like a pair of boxers, please.” A truly lovely group of men and women at that stop.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Many years ago, my daughter Catie, a seasoned volunteer by the time she was 8 years old, met an elderly Japanese man sitting on a hillside in Riverside Park while we were helping a large group of homeless a few feet away. He was enchanted with her and from that point on, Sam and Catie became fast friends. Last night, Sam and Catie had an impromptu reunion at our next stop, and as she quietly approached him, he saw her and hugged her tight. The others went on to speak with the other people who were beginning to gather. It was a moment for me, as I watched Catie and Sam chat and smile and laugh. To me, Sam was always the wise elder, his wispy white beard making an exclamation point from his chin to his chest. And now, Catie was a grown woman, not the 8 year old who found this new friend that night on the hillside so many years ago, bringing him a blanket  so she could cover his swollen knees as they chatted. A real moment, indeed, as my memory fired up these intimate flashbacks to another time.

Our next stop has always been unusually large, but this time, it was our smallest one, with only a handful of people who waited in the cold for us. I was told by one of our friends at the stop that there were many more who simply got too cold to wait any longer. “They’re tourists!” he exclaimed and then showed me how he bundles up for nights like this, sharing that he grew up in New Hampshire and knew what REAL winters were like. And then there was Jeffrey, a gentle and kind man who I have known for twenty years, greeted us with his award-winning smile and spent time speaking with a group of girls. A young man whose name I don’t know, saw us from the shadows of the park and ran toward us, calling my name, or rather calling me by what he thought was my name. “Jenny! Jenny! I’m so happy to see you!” he yelled as he hugged me tightly. My young friend is socially and mentally challenged but has made enormous progress in staying connected to the Run. He was a guest this past year at our annual Thanksgiving Dinner for the Homeless and has been meeting us each month now. Despite any of his handicaps, he engages with the kids and with me and when we leave, he’s the last waving hand I see in the rearview mirror. And, admittedly, I think about where he’ll go after we drive away.

Our evening had been satisfying and truly well-planned. We hardly expected any wrinkles, but that was a short-sighted thought and our last stop proved that. We pulled up to our destination and it was only when we were out of the van, that we saw what we thought was a spirited dialogue between one of our homeless friends and two homed fellows, become a nasty personal attack of words. When I started this journey as a volunteer many years ago, homelessness was a huge issue for the city of New York. Under the Giuliani Administration, the homeless were ignored and mistreated by a system that simply wanted to banish them, rather than work to eradicate the issue. Watching these two older men argue and provoke this quiet group of five homeless individuals, I was reminded of the profound bias and hatred of the homeless that was so pervasive in the early 1990’s. The kids stayed in the cars and the adult volunteers stood nearby while we watched the scene before us. I handed out soup and food and then after we went back to our caravan, Catie and I decided to wait for the police to show up. And they did. I stayed with our students in the van while the others headed back home and Catie simply reported to the police that these men were provoking the homeless, with one of the men jabbing a homeless man with his walking stick.

What is our role as members of a greater community? We claim to be advocates for those far less fortunate than we are. We claim to be so politically correct in our well thought-out statements we spew, each to the other, but here was a very real situation where these neighborhood men chose to pick a fight with the homeless and with all of their might, these homeless individuals restrained themselves from physical violence, opting only for the words that these men chose not to hear. Human behavior – all sides of it – fascinates me. On one hand, we can love they neighbor and respond with kindness, but once things become uncomfortable, once things begin to threaten our sense of propriety, we retreat into another darker place, claiming our territory, digging our spiritual heels into the ground, shutting the door of tolerance in the face of our perceived foe. We lose our humanity and revert to our baser instincts, as what we witnessed last night.

We, as volunteers, did what was the right thing: we stood witness to an uncomfortable situation without endangering ourselves. And when we needed to report the truth, we did. The police were grateful for my daughter’s account and the homeless were left alone. As for the two homed fellows? I suspect they were ushered away and told not to return.

I laud the students and the adults who volunteer with us. I admire their desire to help. They, like me, do it quite simply because they can. This isn’t a resume-builder or a self-agrandizer. It is simply people extending themselves to those who need the aid.

Now imagine a world if only more people did this.

“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”
― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Timothy

Admittedly, when I tried to call Timothy last week and got an automated message that the number I had reached was no longer in service, my heart sank to the floor as i suspected that something terribly wrong had happened. My first thought was that he was in trouble with the law. Why would I jump to that conclusion so quickly? Now that I know why his number wasn’t in service, I feel the deepest shame. Why would I quickly think that Timothy had been arrested?

I was bothered by Timothy’s odd absence. Truly bothered. This was a man whose life had been one struggle after another; an uphill climb if ever there was one. But after too many years of living on the street, too many years of trying to sustain a crack habit and after too many years of not knowing where he’d lay his head for the night, Timothy made it his business to clean himself up. And clean himself up, he did. We had been invited to a graduation ceremony this past December after Timothy had told us on a midnight run that he was part of a program for homeless people who were finally housed. He told us that he had been chosen for this program sponsored by the Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness as a means to help him adjust to life off of the streets. And Timothy, who had seriously committed himself to being the best he could be, was so proud when we attended the ceremony to witness his accomplishments.  Throughout his involvement in this program , he was in touch with me weekly, often twice weekly, to share with me the progress he was making. He had every right to be as proud as he was. At the age of 53, Timothy had never known what it was like to live in his own place. He had never had his own home and now he was on the road to getting one. He had a plan: upon graduation, he’d wait for his Section 8 to be approved and with some assistance, he’d find an SRO which he could actually call home. And once he was settled in housing, he was going to go back to college to finish his Bachelor’s degree in journalism. We were all so proud of him and like the crowd cheering on their team, we supported our friend Timothy and applauded each step forward that he made.

The weekly and twice-weekly phone calls abruptly stopped sometime after the New Year. I knew Timothy was in a men’s shelter awaiting his assignment to an SRO. I knew he could no longer meet us on our monthly homeless outreach runs because he had a curfew, but I also knew he was a loyal friend who made the effort to stay in touch. And so, when I couldn’t connect with him last week, when I received that automated message that his phone number I was calling was no longer in service, I knew something was terribly wrong. I dreaded what it could possibly be.

This afternoon, sometime before the sun began its journey downward to meet the tops of the Palisades cliffs in the West, the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the New York City number that appeared as the Caller ID, and I nearly didn’t answer it. But, after the third ring, I did. The voice on the other end was Timothy’s, his familiar cadence and greeting: “Mrs. Newman? Hello, Mrs. Newman. It’s Timothy, Mrs. Newman. I have missed you……” Even as I type this, I continue to weep the silent tears I had a difficult time holding back when he told where he had been.

“An ambulance took me to Harlem Hospital, Mrs. Newman, and I’m so sorry, but my phone fell out of my pocket and I couldn’t get it.” His voice, always so polite and apologetic, oddly calmed me, until I learned where he had been. “An ambulance? Are you alright, Timothy?” I asked, feeling the panic within me consume the conversation. I wasn’t making it easy for him which was the last thing I wanted to do. Timothy, it seems, got frostbite from his ankles down to his toes. His feet were always a problem for him as he had compromised circulation, despite the insulated Timberland boots we gave him as a graduation gift. He told me, in a soft and deliberate voice, that he had all of his toes amputated and had been in the hospital since February 17th. He had five surgeries since, all efforts to help his skin heal, a task that was so hard for his body to do. I was no help whatsoever. All I could do was weep.

We’ll visit Timothy tomorrow and bring him what he asked for: fried chicken and a ginger ale. He does not feel sorry for himself and blames no one for his fate. He continues to have his plan and feels that once he’s out of the hospital and completes some time doing rehab, he will seek shelter and a home once again. And, he’ll re-enroll to finish his degree.

I wrote this out because over the last twenty five years or so that I have known Timothy, he has taught me more lessons than I can recount in one sitting. His patience and tolerance and utter politeness is beyond admirable; Timothy, who has nothing material in this world, is one of the richest individuals I know.  The wealth of experience he has gleaned is immeasurable because he has a depth of love for those around him very few of my homed friends have ever had.

He is my friend and as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “a Masterpiece of Nature.” May I only learn to be the very same to him.

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March Comes in Like a Lion…….and goes out like one, too

There has been so much chatter about the extended winter we have had, the unremitting cold that simply doesn’t want to loosen its grip on us here in New York. At this point, at March’s end when pansies would otherwise be braving the chill while crocuses punctuate the winter-weary ground, the weather has become the focus of every conversation along the East Coast. From family dinner tables to board rooms, from Facebook to Twitter, the cold and snow are center stage to other more noteworthy news.

For the most part, we are impatient with the weather, anxious to feel the warmth of the sun and the soft carpet of new grass beneath our feet, but for those whose homes are sheets of cardboard over a subway grate or the huddled, shadowed corner of a stone-cold step of an urban church, Spring and all it’s renewed beauty may as well be another year away. Cold is cold when shelter is absent and the city streets at night won’t feel warm until the depth of summer envelopes us.

It is, of course, a relative matter and we are, after all, only human in our crankiness. I merely offer this: as we seethe over extended heating bills that we will see into the month of April, as we roll our eyes at the thought of wearing those cold-weather clothes we’re so anxious to shed, it may do us all a bit of good to be grateful for all that we DO have. The weather will warm, the flowers will emerge and when the heat index goes well into the humid 90’s, we will complain about the excessive temperatures as well.

There really ARE so many – too many – who simply don’t have the luxury of complaining, as they just hold on and hope for even the slightest improvement. For them, life hangs precariously in the balance. For us, we really ought to remember that.

Aside

You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful.  What you’ll discover is yourself.  ~ Alan Alda

 
November is the beginning of the busy months. Holidays rapidly descend upon us, starting with my favorite holiday of all: Thanksgiving. Our group of  twenty high school kids accompanied by four hearty adults made our way into the city last night, to reach out to the homeless men and women who, after 25 years, have become part of the fabric of our lives, and who we’ll see again soon at our 24th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner for the Homeless. It’s become tradition. It’s become anticipated. It has been the focus of conversation among so many of our street friends from our first Run in September to the later, colder winter Runs when so many will reminisce about the food and the friendship they felt in November when the iconic school buses picked hundreds of them up so they, too, could enjoy a homemade holiday meal.
It cannot be easy, accepting the kindness of strangers. And yet, over the many years, these forged relationships between the teenagers and the homeless poor of New York City have created a deep and lasting bond of trust, of compassion, of love. Watching this crew of 20 students last night engage in animated conversation, sharing their anticipation of the Thanksgiving party they’ve worked so hard on, was nothing short of sheer joy. 
 
It was the third stop on our list of five that touched me in that way that only happens on a Run. While speaking to a woman I had never seen before, I heard my name being called with a request to come over to the back of the truck where the kids were dishing out cups of Rob’s steaming hot chili and cubes of sweet cornbread in the shadows of the park. Timothy was here and I was genuinely happy to see him.  In his clipped but polite cadence, he spoke as if life was one run-on
sentence,”HelloMrs.NewmanHowareyouMrs.NewmanAndI’msogladtoseeyouMrs.NewmanandI’msorryIdidn’tcallyoutoletyouknowIwascomingtotheRunbutI’mworkinghardonmylifeMrsNewman…..”And then something changed. What I had always perceived as a demeanor guided by the antipsychotic drugs he was taking to combat his mental illness, changed. Timothy’s steady, flatline voice became animated and engaged as he told me about the program he was chosen for, a program sponsored by Fordham University that was studying homelessness in the city. He told me how at his age, he never had his own place and that now, with the help of the Fordham crew, he was working with case workers on getting his own home. He told me with life in his eyes that he’s going back to school to complete his degree. I had no idea he had attended college! He’s enrolled at City College where he will major in writing in January, and he told me how much he is looking forward to having a normal life, a normal job, a perspective that was more like a fog-lifting experience, revealing a whole world to him of truth and clarity. Timothy, for every intent and purpose, has found himself. And while he spoke in this authentic manner, free of the robotic disposition I had grown accustomed too, I felt the tears well in my eyes. The pressures of planning our homeless Thanksgiving dinner dissipated and I found myself hugging this sweet man who slew his share of demons in the twenty five years I have called him my friend.
 
Timothy, like so many other men and women I have met whose lives were shattered and splintered by opportunities missed, has found himself and knows now what freedom really feels like, tastes like, and he’s embracing it.
 
And on the way home, while the chatter in the van eased and the quiet of the early morning hours blanketed the group, I heard only this in my head, as I thought of Timothy’s self discovery, a verse from the one song that our Thanksgiving guests sing, year after year: 
“I once was lost but now I’m found, ‘Twas blind but now I see.”
 
Good for you, Timothy! Good for you and your proven tenacity, your steadfast commitment to your own growth and your ability to overcome so many obstacles in your path. I’ll look for those Timberland boots you asked for, my friend, with the hope that they’ll continue to guide you out of your self-imposed darkness and into the Light.
 

Aside

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Saying Goodbye to an old friend…Rest gently with the angels, Ronald…

As we rounded the corner to 80th Street last evening, a large congregation of people were gathering outside of All Angels Church, a mainstay for the less privileged in this Upper West Side community for many, many years. We parked the car and joined them, as we were all gathered to say goodbye to our friend, Ronald, the other half of what was always known as the inseparable “Ron-and-Diane” couple. In their younger days, Ron and Diane occupied a spot in one of a few tunnels in Riverside Park, or downstairs in the Rotunda, contributed by Robert Moses, New York City’s master builder of the mid-20th century. They were homeless then, but happy and judging by the stories told at yesterday’s service, tales shared by those who occupied the same sleeping spots, theirs was a tight community of friendship and a vision clouded by crack, in a city that had no idea what to do with the burgeoning numbers of people in poverty. So many of my friends here had moved on to leave the cardboard pallets and rotting sleeping bags behind. So many made the efforts to get beyond the dope before it got too bad. As I listened to the testimonials and declarations of friendship and love they had for Ron and his wife and children, I went back in time to twenty five years ago when I first met these friends of mine, in the deep shadows of the night, gathered around the cars we drove down down to the city, filled with clothing and food and blankets. What started as a volunteer opportunity for me and hundreds of my students, my own young children and my friends, became a distinct and deliberate part of my life: the third Saturday night of every month, of every year, for twenty five of them was reserved to do this homeless outreach. The reality for me truly was far less antiseptic. Those Saturday nights were reserved to be with a group of people who accepted me – us – into their lives as friends. Genuinely and sincerely, they allowed us in. 

 
And so, we sat in the front pew of All Angels Church yesterday because Diane, Ron’s widow, escorted us there, saying,”You’ll sit here, Jeanne, because you’re my family.” As I type this out, the tears of two decades suddenly find their way down my cheeks; tears I have not wanted to shed, fearing that if I do, I’ll lose effectiveness and objectivity. Tears of joy and sorrow, rivulets of hope lost and hope found, are now breaking the dam that held them in for so many years.
 
There was passion and deep belief within this strong community of mourners yesterday that is strikingly absent in my life, I noticed. The barefooted Indian priest asked, “Can I hear an Amen?” and I found myself responding. The service and my memories of Ronald poured over me, and I was right there in the moment, watching the joy in celebrating this fallen angel’s life spread throughout this room, upstairs in the church on the Upper West Side.
 
Ronald’s ashes were strewn across the water of the Hudson, Diane told me when she called me very late last night to see if we had gotten home safely. She was checking in with me because her too-filled heart has always been that way. We will see each other again soon, she said. She and her sons will share Thanksgiving Dinner with us again when we have our annual dinner in November and although Ron is somewhere else, his presence as her forever partner will be there. 
 
The day moves forward. There are chores to do and tasks to complete. But, as I go through this day and perhaps the next few, the images of my old friend Ron will make an appearance as he rests gently and in peace.