Walking with the Homeless in NYC
It was not my first time doing this, spending a cold Saturday in February walking around for hours reaching out to homeless New Yorkers. Last year, I led a team of volunteers as we walked around Harlem hoping to talk with homeless neighbors who might be in need of food, clothing, or a bed for the night.
We were doing this through Hope for New York’s annual Don’t Walk By outreach to New Yorkers living on the streets. It’s an experience that, both times, has taught me a great deal about what it means to be in community and to embrace being uncomfortable.
Here is a taste of how this year’s outreach went. After eating a heavy breakfast, my husband and I, along with two of our friends, made our way to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. The energy was high as we waited alongside 300 other volunteers who were all ready to serve.
Around 2 p.m., we were sent out to scour Manhattan’s East Side in the hopes of providing our homeless neighbors with some supplies we had packed in our bags—gloves, snacks, that kind of thing—with the goal of inviting them back to church for dinner. It was inspiring to see hundreds of volunteers walking out of the church ready to serve our neighbors.
Our group of three men and four women took the subway uptown. We walked around for three hours, checking parks, banks, subway stations, streets with scaffolding, and bridges. For the most part, though, we found our homeless neighbors were out in the busy streets walking around like everyone else. At one point, we met five people within two blocks. They were hungry, invisible, and surprised at the attention we gave them.
“NO, THANK YOU”
Of the people we met that afternoon, one man in particular stood out to me. He was a big guy, and he had a shopping cart filled with his belongings: a sleeping bag, laundry, and extra supplies. We introduced ourselves to him, and he was quite receptive of our intrusion on his afternoon. We told him about a special dinner that night at the church where hot meals would be served. We also told him about the possibility of an overnight stay with a clean bed and a warm blanket. He seemed interested enough.
It was the first interaction that afternoon where I felt confident introducing myself. We’d met about 10 people at that point, and I felt like I was getting the hang of it. With a bit of hesitation, I felt a strong urge to pray with him. So, I asked, “Can we pray with you?”
My own question surprised me. I’ve always been shy about praying aloud. It’s too intimate, and I’m embarrassed of what other people might think of how I prayed. But this was different. I was convinced I needed to pray with this man. He replied with a short and respectful, “No, thank you.”
His response hit me like a punch in the gut. It felt like my motivation for volunteering that day, for talking to him, had been so quickly rejected.
But that moment reminded me of something. That day wasn’t about me; it was about him.
In the end, we gave him a hygiene and winter kit along with a few extra resources and went on our way.
At about 6 p.m., we came back to the church joyful and inspired. We had successfully engaged more than 10 people that day, which was five times the number of friends we had met the previous year. When we arrived, we saw guests coming into the church and rescue vans lined 55th Street to drop off those who needed transportation.
More than 130 guests had accepted invitations for dinner that night. Podiatrists, case managers, volunteer attorneys, and a bunch of other resources welcomed these guests upon their arrival to the church. I wasn’t there to see it myself, but I knew the hospitality crew made our guests feel valued, seen, and, hopefully, loved.
It was amazing to see a movement of volunteers and the impact that just one day can have. It truly was a moment of inspiration for myself to do more and to serve where I can. Don’t Walk By is proof that a small deed can make a big difference in someone’s life.
I may not be able to answer big questions about ending homelessness, but there’s one thing I am sure of: God is in control. I saw Him that day. I saw Him in my group, in the friends we met, in the people who planned event, in the other volunteers, and in the organizations who fund outreaches like Don’t Walk By. I saw Him fueling the work each person did that day.
I know I can’t take credit for what happened that day. It wasn’t me. It was the strong, moving force of God that led me to volunteer, to invite friends to join, and to offer a small kindness to strangers living on the streets.
He is in control. The glory is all His.
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Ria Cruz is a HFNY Rep at Redeemer East Side.