The snow has fallen, the Christmas trees have gone up, and the lights have been strung. The Holiday season is here. New York City is known for going out all out with decorations. It is also known for being home to over 62,000 homeless people, for whom the holidays may have a different tone. For those who call the streets their home, the holidays may be a reminder of the things they don’t have like a Christmas tree, someone to celebrate with or even being able to be inside for a week.
Irene Bonilla, a resident of The Sarah Powell Huntington House poses with her son CJ at the Women’s Prison Association event “Rebuilding Together” yesterday. Photo by Rebeca Corleto.
There are 46 people living at The Sarah Powell Huntington House, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a residence for formerly incarcerated women and their children. Some are lifelong drug addicts, some were imprisoned for other crimes. Many have been separated from their children.
The House is owned by the Women’s Prison Association who opened its doors yesterday to over 100 volunteers for “Rebuilding Together” an event held to improve the facility. Volunteers spent the day repainting walls, windows, and staircases and doing repairs in the units.
Irene Bonilla resides in apartment 5D. She moved in after leaving prison and a period of homelessness.
“By 17 [years old] I was addicted to crack,” she said. “By 24 I had four children. Incarcerated in 1996, incarcerated in 2005. I’ve got 10 children including this one,” said Bonilla, gesturing to her young son.
Bonilla’s had a hard week, her sister died two days prior. Despite the grief, Bonilla insisted that she’s going to be okay. She’s worked hard to be sober for 24 months.
“I didn’t go nowhere yesterday,” said Bonilla. “Even though I felt the urge, I stayed home, here.”
Diana McHugh, the director of communications of the WPA said she’s been with the group for over five years, and was one of the organizers of “Rebuilding Together.”
Prior to working for the WPA, McHugh taught a class for women at a correctional facility. In preparing for class one day, she opened the window blinds in the room to let some light in. Less than a minute later, a prison guard came in and shut the blinds, letting her know that it was forbidden to have them open.
“There’s no humanity in prison,” she said. “They’re being denied sunshine.”
That moment in the prison has stuck with McHugh for years and was part of the reason she sought out work at the WPA first as a volunteer and now a full-time employee. For her, Saturday was about letting the women know that they have people on their side. The WPA and all of the volunteers who came to paint the walls and staircases, make repairs and improvements, are there rooting for them.
“We provide a physical space. Someplace safer, more comfortable,” said McHugh. “The most inspiring part of today is to have so many volunteers share their time and let these women know that they matter.”
Statistics show that women in prison receive less visitors from family and friends than male prisoners. As much as 79% of incarcerated women were abused at some point in their lives. More than half of women in prison were the primary caretakers of their children prior to their jail sentences.
Bonilla was happy the volunteers are making her home more cheerful.
“When the walls are dull, it makes you feel depressed,” she said. “I go to my drug program, then come home here. Every day, same routine. The wall outside my apartment is green. That makes me really happy. Green is the color of money. Of life.”
Bonilla has been reunited with one of her 10 children, 6-year-old CJ. The WPA has helped her get her life back after prison. Bonilla compared her life in prison to her life now, grateful for what she has overcome.
“Not having to stand up and be counted,” said Bonilla.. “Not having to share a shower with five other women. Waiting for everything, in line to eat, waiting to go to the bathroom.”
The WPA helps women reunite with their children, find employment, and reestablish themselves after leaving the criminal justice system.
Tiffany Hallett manages the building. She has been at the residence for five years and helped oversee “Rebuilding Together.”
“People that are on the outside, that haven’t been in correctional facilities,think that these people are different. And they’re not. They’re no different,” said Hallett.” “It’s their choices that set them apart. And people may say, ‘Oh, why do they have to drugs because something happened?’ But they may not have had the same circumstances, or made the same choices.”
Bonilla recently received the good news that the New York City Housing Authority has approved her for permanent housing.
“No Regrets,” she said. “Twenty –eight years of crack and I’m proud of me now. I’m happy. Fridays are my best days. I go to parenting [program], come home, pick up CJ and got to my mom’s [house].”
The staff of Pavement Pieces, traveled to Baltimore for a 3-day multimedia project. The students covered multiple issues that showed the struggles and promise of the city.
View the project here
On a recent downtown R train subway ride, the train pulled into the station, the doors opened and then riders heard two men speaking in unison: “Ladies and gentlemen, sorry for the interruption. Is there anyone on this train who is hungry, especially children?”
Just like that – free food is given to the homeless and hungry as stated on their gray T-shirts. Five men push three carts with sandwiches, granola bars, fruit and juices and gave them to anyone who asked.
“You don’t have to be homeless to be hungry,” said Rolando “Divine” Farrow, the founder of Food For The Homeless, whose mission is to feed as many hungry New Yorkers as he can.
Three years ago he was hungry and homeless himself. A stranger on a subway gave him a sandwich. This simple gesture led him on a path of wanting to help others in similar life situations.
Divine is on a public assistance program and lives in the Bronx. Donations on the subway and on the streets are the only sources of money for his mission. He does not travel alone. His colleague from Staten Island Henry Thomas, 38, and others help him feed hungry New Yorkers every day. Thomas lived in a shelter for seven years before he met Divine two years ago. Now they feed nearly 200 people every day.
“We have people who depend on us. They look for us to come by,” said Thomas.
Early in the morning, six days a week, they prepare sandwiches, fill each of three cooler carts with nearly $100 worth of supplies and start to make their way through the subway web.
“The main thing we are trying to do is to give nutritious food,” said Divine.
Along with fresh sandwiches they share information about shelters, where to get a free hot meal and free clothing.
“I believe that one person can make a difference in the world and everyone should at least try,” said Thomas.
Kate Graft who is homeless, doesn’t know if she would go to a shelter if this weekend weather continues to plunge. Photo by Rakeesha Wrigley
This weekend’s bone-chilling weather could be life threatening for New York City’s homeless population. Forecasters predict temperatures as low as three degrees on Sunday night. Adding snow to the icy streets, wintry weather heightens the risk of living outside.
In these weather conditions, the Department of Homeless Services (DOHS) activates its Code Blue policy. The policy is initiated when the temperature drops below 32 degrees because of the possibility of the homeless being injured or dying in the streets from hyperthermia. DOHS street outreach efforts are increased to check on the homeless and to offer them resources like shelters and drop-in centers. Still, many of the city’s street homeless choose to tough it out under sleeping bags, blankets and scaffoldings.
Kate Graft, 24, is from Maine and has been homeless since being kicked out of her parents’ house at 15.
“I would rather freeze on the streets than go into a shelter,” Graft said. “We don’t want to stay with drunk home bones (older homeless men) who piss themselves or have bugs.”
On Tuesday, the DOHS conducted its annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) in midtown Manhattan. At midnight, over 3,000 volunteers combed the five boroughs with HOPE surveys and offers of shelter for the homeless. Joshua Rodriguez, 27, who works as a multimedia director in the daytime, volunteered to give back by giving his time.
“I like the experience of trying to help and give back to people in need,” Rodriguez said. “I always have somewhere to go at night whereas a lot of people don’t.”
Rodriguez teamed up with his friend Tehura Banks, 34, a rent administrator for Common Ground to survey the areas between 50th St. and 10th Ave.
They came upon a homeless woman covering her shopping carts with plastic, and a homeless man preparing his bed on the sidewalk. Rodriguez offered them shelter for the night.
“I just want to stay here and work,” the woman said.
She had barricaded herself behind a barrage of about seven shopping carts where she served as a shopkeeper and her carts a type of thrift store. Her sale items were distributed among her carts. She had carefully covered her items in cardboard and plastic to protect them from potential snow and rain. The carts, the scaffolding from the building she was under and the well-lit gas station to her left were her security from both the weather and unwanted visitors.
“I don’t want anything from the government,” she said. “I don’t want to go into a shelter. I have everything I need right here. Last time I went I was attacked.”
There are over 268 shelters in New York City operating under the Right to Shelter mandate which provides temporary emergency shelter to eligible men, women and children in distress. Despite awareness of shelters, many of the homeless prefer the street, using the subway stations as temporary housing until removed by the police.
Studies show that the majority of the homeless living on the streets, are mentally ill, suffer from drug addiction or have serious health issues. Four out of five street homeless New Yorkers are men, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. There is no accurate count of the number of homeless in the city streets, but the coalition estimates that figure to be in the thousands. Most
live on the streets of midtown Manhattan.
Marc Clemente, 29, from Connecticut, has been on the street since he was 17. He said he only uses the subway for shelter in emergency.
“If it gets really bad we just go down to the subway and wait for the police to kick us out or arrest us,” Clemente said. “Other than that we just go to the scaffolding and layer blanks on us.”
Recently Jeff, who did not want to give his last name, a homeless man in Buffalo, New York lost both of his legs to frostbite. Luckily, someone found him before he died. Stories like this aren’t unfamiliar to Clemente.
“An acquaintance of mine passed out and urinated on himself,” he said. “The next morning he was dead, frozen to the sidewalk. They had to scrape him off.”
Nichols, who did not give his last name, 32, is from Florida. After finding syringes in his bedroom drawer, his foster family kicked him out. He’s been homeless for 15 years.
“January 17th was negative 11 degrees and we had a whole camp set up with a tent, fire pit, and a wood burning stove,” Nichols said. “We just burned everything in sight. It’s actually a pretty mild winter compared to last winter. It hasn’t got too bad yet, I don’t think it’s going to get any worse.”
by Ben Shapiro and Virginia Gunawan
Agony, despair, loneliness, hunger–these are some on the emotions and physical states actors tried to communicate to the audience during the “For the Homeless” ballet performance. Photo by Maria Panskaya
by Maria Panskaya
With eyes filled with tears, Ricky sat in the front row at Church of the Holy Apostles, in Chelsea, Manhattan yesterday attentively watching young and old performers acting and dancing on the stage in the new ballet show, “For The Homeless” by Edward Morgan Ballet.
Ricky is not her real name and she no longer uses her last name. She said her age is insignificant to her; while such things as food, shelter and hygiene is of a huge value to her life.
“For The Homeless” a free performance, which was created in collaboration with Goddard Riverside Community Center and Joseph Alexander Awareness Project, revealed the uncensored side of homelessness, trying to raise awareness and educate people on the issue thought dance and expressive acting. The show closes tomorrow.
“A lot of people have a misconception about homeless,” said Celestiena Trower, a former social worker and one of the performers. “We hope that people who see the performance will be more conscious about this issue. The homeless are not weak people or people who don’t want to work. They are all kinds of people: people who had been at war and came back injured, people who worked and lost their jobs. We want New Yorkers to know it.”
Ricky, who had been homeless for about five years, was covered in thick bluefish blankets, with charcoal leather boots slightly showing from underneath her numerous robes and with a red t-shirt brightly popping out from underneath her navy-blue hoodie. She didn’t smell. She wasn’t rude. And she didn’t choose to live on the streets or to beg for food, she said.
Before, she had it all—family, home, food—but one day she lost her job, all savings drained away, she received almost no help form the city government, lost her apartment and friends, and ended up moving to the nearest dumpster.
“I thought it would never happen to me. I would never end up living on the street,” said Ricky. “But it happened. Sometimes I overhear people say that I chose to be this way, but it’s not true. How can someone, in good mind and spirit, intentionally become homeless? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Joseph Alexander, director of the Edward Morgan Ballet and initiator of the Homeless Awareness Project, came up with an idea of a ballet for the homeless four years ago, inspired by one of his students. With ballet being an art of physical strength, grace and discipline, Alexander’s student was coming in late for classes and skipping some of them.
“I remember her crying a lot,” said Alexander, in reference to his student. “I thought that she might’ve been abused at home or something along these lines. But one day she said to me that she and her mama were moving to a shelter and it is hard for her to keep up with ballet training. I was shocked.”
The following year Alexander began to work with kids who lived in shelters, teaching them how to sing and dance. The hard work was paid off when the kids won a talent show with their musical theater/ballet performance.
However, one of the difficulties Alexander had faced since the awareness project started was raising funds. He had always spent his own money to cover ballet expenses such as children’s trips to contests and equipment costs. No donations were coming in from anywhere. But it didn’t discourage him from committing to the project.
“I still reach out to children form different communities, trying to integrate them,” said Alexander. “If you have talent and drive we will foster it.”
Since then, in collaboration with various organizations, he has worked on raising awareness about homelessness, sending the message that homeless people are people too and they deserve help and attention. Despite the Morgan’s ballet company’s nation-wide recognition, the company still train children from impoverished communities and participate in multiple outreach programs.
Approximately 150 people attended “For The Homeless” performance and among those were representatives from different cultures, generations and races—from several homeless people like Ricky to college students to concerned citizens, who live just above the poverty line.
Sharice Burgess, of the Bronx is struggling to provide for her two children and her 94-year-old mother.
“I stay in prayer all the time,” said Burgess. “My family is too close to being kicked out from the apartment. I pray I have enough money to pay rent every month.”
According to the Census Bureau, 21% of New Yorkers live in poverty and struggle to make ends meet every day, just like Burgess. While watching the emotionally intense ballet choreography, Burgess broke into tears, scared that one day she might end up living on the street, sleeping on the stone-cold floor and begging for food.
Zach Mihalko, of Brooklyn attended the performance only because of the Morgan’s outstanding dancing skills and reputation, but said he was educated and inspired by the show and he vowed to volunteer at soup kitchens every week.
“This performance added to my understanding about homelessness,” said Mihalko. “To be honest, I have never even thought about this issue. I didn’t care much. But now I feel like I have to do something to help those unfortunate on the streets.”
Mihalko’s emotional response to the ballet was a reaction Morgan had tried to achieve among all guests. Even though no politicians or governmental officials responded to the Morgan’s invitation to see the performance, he was still happy that their awareness message was able to touch hearts and open minds of regular folks like Mihalko.
“Most people take comfort of their home and food on their table for granted,” said Anne Wangh, of Manhattan one of the attendees. “They don’t think they can end up homeless one day.”
Back on my Feet volunteers use running to help the homeless build their lives back.
by Talia Avakian
On a warm Saturday morning, a group of men and women gather in Central Park to go for a run. There are crowds of joggers hitting the pavement that day, but one thing sets this group of runners apart. Most of these men and women are homeless, and they aren’t just running for the exercise. For them, running is their way out of homelessness.
These runners are members of Back on My Feet, a non-profit that uses running to helping homeless transition into employment and independent living. Working with shelters across 11 states, including New York, Back on My Feet volunteers run with homeless every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in the city.
“There’s a lot of competitive and fun running teams in New York, but this one has an added element of outreach that just hooks you,” said Jean Hartig, Back on My Feet’s Director of Communications. Hartig has been with Back on My Feet’s New York chapter since it started two years ago.
Originally launched in Philadelphia, Back on My Feet began when founder Anne Mahlum, who would run by a local shelter every morning, realized she wanted to communicate and help homeless in the shelter instead of passing them by every morning, said Jean. For this reason, Mahlum pushed to get a non-profit started that would allow her to continue running like she did every morning, but to turn the activity into one that benefits homeless as well.
Jerry Rahming, 60 from East Harlem, has been with the program’s New York chapter since its start. Rahming was homeless and living in a shelter when he was introduced to Back on My Feet during an orientation meeting the program held at the shelter. Rahming said he had always been active until he became homeless, and so he thought the program might be a good way to start exercising again.
But once he started, he realized the benefits were more than just physical, he said. Running also helped him to build endurance, discipline, and motivation-skills that are crucial to changing your life.
“I equate it with the jungle, because animals are always running,” he said. “It’s about running to stay on your feet until you either survive through catching prey or by not being caught by predators and so I equate what you need for running-the endurance and the motivation-in a very real sense with how I look at my life now.”
Rahming also participated in last year’s New York City Marathon and the experience has given him a newfound confidence.
“I completed it at 60-years-old and I realized that if I can do that, there are other things I can do as well,” said Rahming.
Paul Persichetti, 40, of the Upper East Side. Persichetti had never been active before he joined Back on My Feet in February. He weighed 290 pounds and was homesless but by running, he has been able to improve both his physical and emotional wellbeing.
“This has been a great way for me to become active, to keep the weight off, and to finally be happy,” Persichetti said.
And these health benefits have been crucial to helping Persichetti, who is currently back in school, stay focused.
“We get up early, and it gives me so much more energy to be able to go to school and get through the day,” Persichetti said.
Since starting at Back on My Feet, Persichetti, who never ran, has already run a total of 80 miles in three months, and he plans to run in this year’s New York City Marathon.
So far, the organization has served 200 residential members who currently receiving housing through the program and since launching, 74 of these members are now employed and 72 have moved into independent living.
For Hartig, Back on My Feet provides a refreshing change from the typical shelters and transitional housing programs meant to assist homeless.
“Being able to create a community outside of the normal realm of thinking of shelters and programs is really helpful for some of our members who have been living in rigid institutional margins for more than 60 years,” said Hartig. “To be able to have an activity that allows them to get a little goofy is a huge value ad for our members, and it’s addictive to see how supportive these men and women are to each other.”
This has been the case for Rahming, who said that the program has helped him open up to people for the first time in years.
“Before I joined, I was more of a recluse, but Back on My Feet has pulled me away from myself and brought me in contact with others,” said Rahming. “It’s made me feel that I can rely and trust in people again.”