Jeffrey Newman (left) and Jayson Conner have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.
Since early March, they have been working night and day to provide New Yorkers experiencing homelessness with backpacks full of necessities like hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, gloves, masks, and sleeping bags. It’s a mission that Newman and Conner began two years ago when they founded Together Helping Others, a nonprofit seeking to help people living on the streets.
Since they started their first program, Backpacks for the Street, in March 2018, Newman, Conner, and a growing number of volunteers have given away 4,000 backpacks, 18,000 feminine hygiene products, 13,000 Mylar blankets, and much more.
photo by Stephen Yang.
The idea was simple: Stock backpacks full of items including two pairs of socks, T-shirts, gloves, hats, food items, and necessities like first aid kits, sewing kits, pen and paper, a flashlight, and toiletries like toothpaste/toothbrush, comb, shampoo, soap, and nail clippers.
“The homeless, even before COVID, are one of the most vulnerable and least helped demographics. Most feel invisible. People treat them like they are lower than pond scum at times. It is heartbreaking,” Newman tells The Advocate. “When COVID hit, it became clear immediately that the most vulnerable communities were the elderly, people with underlying illnesses, and the homeless. But of the three, only two — the elderly and people with underlying illnesses — were the ones people were trying to help and keep safe. Almost no one was talking about how to get supplies and care to the homeless.”
Since launching Backpacks for the Street, Newman, Conner, and their growing number of volunteers have given away 4,000 backpacks, 18,000 feminine hygiene products, 13,000 Mylar blankets, and much more. But as the pandemic went into full swing, the program had to act swiftly.
Since March 2020, the nonprofit has given away 1,300 backpacks with COVID-specific supplies.
photo by Stephen Yang
“We went from 30 to 60 backpacks every other week in one or two neighborhoods to doing 100 backpacks and COVID kits three or four times a week in four boroughs out of a U-Haul van, with only two additional volunteers at a time to maintain social distancing and keep everyone safe,” Newman explains.
“We refuse to lose that human element of what makes our program and our efforts work and drives us. We found safe ways to spend time with each person we help to make sure they have everything they need and to give them our number in case they need anything else.”
“There are some efforts in some of the major cities to house the homeless in hotels, but it’s not consistent, or enough by any means,” Newman explains of the response from local governments. “It is all over the place with a lot of people making bold statements and demanding big action with little follow-through and little movement. There is no increase in SNAP/food stamps. Shelters are overflowing and mixing people who are positive for COVID-19 in with everyone else, adding to a complete state of fear and anxiety and tension.”
In contrast, grassroots organizations like Together Helping Others are rising up to answer the call.
“[We] are not concerned about red tape or bureaucracy and we are not worrying about our electability,” he says. “We are not wasting our time with tweets and online menacing. We are on the front lines, getting our hands dirty, risking our own well-being to keep others safe, cared for, and supplied with everything they need to prevent being exposed to (or potentially exposing others to) COVID-19.”
“What really frustrates me is that we do not have Lady Gaga or Elton John or any of the pretty celebrities doing fundraiser or concerts for the homeless affected by COVID-19, despite them being among the top 5 percent of the most vulnerable,” Newman argues.
“It reminds me of those early years of AIDS when you would see the celebs and politicians rally around AIDS babies or children in Africa because they were the safe demographic to support. [It’s] the same now. People are all getting behind the safe demographics, but no one is out talking about the dirty person in need of a shower and a bed, who is sleeping out on the sidewalk who’s battling coronavirus or trying to survive without getting it.”
"A few things have caught me by surprise since the pandemic began," Newman says. "I was here for 9/11, where the terrorist attack on NYC brought people together and unified the city to take each other arm in arm and stand up against the common enemy."
"Now, this horrific event – a terrorist attack of its kind – has brought out the ugliness in some people, where it is every man for himself. People are fighting and screaming over toilet paper and a carton of eggs. And the homeless, they get even more discriminated than usual. In a non-COVID universe they are treated as worthless or invisible, now they are scorned and viewed as dirty and diseased. People act as if because they are homeless, they must have the virus and will somehow infect them if they make eye contact. It is infuriating, ignorant and mindboggling wrong."
When asked if there were any common themes volunteers found in the people they were serving, Newman responds: "Fear. Gratitude. Confusion. Compassion."
"The people we help are scared they will get sick and that the hate against them will become greater out of ignorance," he says. "Homeless have no access to COVID supplies and little options to assistance. There is tremendous gratitude."
"People who are not homeless and are suddenly facing the first real possibility that it could happen has made them more compassionate towards people in need and helping those who are struggling now. People are realizing homelessness is not necessarily a choice or something anyone can foresee and that a person’s circumstances should not define their worth."