As much as our New York trips are fairly indulgent, for some time I wanted to try some volunteering. Mental health is a very personal passion of mine and the link with the most basic provisions in life and homelessness is fairly strong.
I heard or read some time ago from an innocuous quote based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that humans only really need Shelter, Sustenance (food & water) and Love (or Sex, depending on how primal you believe we are).
Everything else above this is a bonus and are just “things” we covet that provide no long-term emotional benefit.
I thankfully get to go home every night to a warm, welcoming home with food and an extended family that would have us there with them no matter what.
My best mate and his partner had helped out in Sydney with the homeless and seeing as the issue is even more visible in New York I figured this would be a good place to start. To different levels the basic needs of those less fortunate humans can be attended to by volunteering.
Some Google searching found The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen based in Midtown Manhattan on 9th Avenue. Every single weekday the team here provides nutritious meals for 1200 people. No one whatsoever is turned away. In addition they offer counselling and education to visitors.
Two weeks before we left I eagerly booked in on the online calendar for a morning a couple of days before the end of our trip.
When the chosen morning came I felt like crap. I’d had a headache pain behind for eyes for a couple of days and my sinuses hurt. But I prescribed myself some cement and told myself to harden up.
I walked the 25 blocks to the church. It pissed down and my feet were soaked through. It was a relief to enter the Church. For those that know me well will know I never thought I would say that.
There were people everywhere setting up tables of food and hot drinks. Some were eating the bagels provided by the Church for volunteers.
The organisers were older, gentle people. I felt a little awkward not knowing anyone so busied myself sitting drinking a tea at a table with a guy that was tucking into some breakfast.
I enthusiastically said “Good Morning” but he did not respond. Finally at 10:15 everyone was given his or her tasks. It was informal but most people were regulars so this was normal to them. I waited to be given an apron to help serve or clear up dishes. But they had other ideas.
One of the helpful, main organisers gave me a radio and said I would be on the front door as “security”. I was to use the radio if there were any issues but the main purpose was to greet the visitors and make sure the entrance did not get crowded or that the queue did not block the ramp and exits.
20 metres away the front gate was opened and a throng of people descended on me. Some wore soiled clothes, others were dressed relatively well. It made me think about those that would never have imagined having to rely on the kitchen.
Some had bags and suitcases that housed all their belongings. If too large I was to encourage them to leave the bag outside. But I should “pick my battles” if anyone was insistent. I only had to politely ask twice and both times they were more than happy to oblige.
The visitors spanned broad ages and races. The majority was African-American, followed by Latinos and then Asians. White people were in the minority. Males far outweighed females.
My smiley greeting provoked a mixture of reactions. I made a conscious effort to look every person in the eyes. Some ignored me or even looked embarrassed to be there. Some could not make eye contact. Others bowed their heads and nodded or quietly mumbled.
Some looked straight through me. Their eyes were drained of life. A good amount would smile back briefly and nod in appreciation, “Good morning Sir, thank you”. Some even managed a cheery hello, smiled broadly and made a witty remark about the food or weather or stopped briefly to tell a joke.
Some were shaking; a few could not physically acknowledge me. Clearly some were mentally ill and others did not have the energy to speak. Some were in wheelchairs; others gingerly shuffled along with the help of sticks. A good number came back for second helpings. It could be their only meal of the day.
The most touching were those that connected with you, just for a brief moment. The first conversation I had was after stopping a guy in the queue to stop the crowding inside. He was proudly from Orlando and showed me his Florida driver’s licence. I told him about my holiday to Miami years ago. He lived two blocks away in a shelter and came here twice a week to “keep costs down”. He seemed apologetic.
Soon after an African-American man dressed like an Englishman about to go hunting, stopped to exclaim, “You look great sir, the sunshine is making your eyes sparkle blue”. Before I had a chance to respond he had bounced inside.
Equally friendly was an African-American man that thanked me for watching his huge suitcase on wheels outside the door: “You’re the best security I’ve had here, last time some dumbass let the suitcase roll down the ramp and just watched it roll away”.
One of the most unlikely visitors, on the surface, was a white guy, bulky, middle aged with wavy blonde hair. He struck me as quintessentially American. Strangely like a WWE wrestler. He was clean and had a nice bike but was worried it would be stolen as he forgot his lock. I watched it for him and he shook my hand with a bone-crushing grip when he left.
As my shift was nearing the end, Brooke, the Volunteer Coordinator, talked to me and asked about my life. She seemed determined. I was welcomed back and promised the next time I am here I would get in touch.
Sadly I learned despite their incredible work, the government has recently cut their budget by $180,000, meaning they increasingly rely on private donations and help.
It may not be life changing but it was a humbling experience. I left a large bag of clothes that my wife Carolina and I no longer needed. The irony was not lost on me that New York screams excess for those that look no further than the bars and penthouse apartments. Surely we can all do just a little more consistently to stop one of these guys having to rely on vital, stretched services for life.
To find our more or to get involved click on the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen link here.