Post by Jamie H. Silverstein, Special Projects Manager, Office of the CEO, Repair the World
Hurricane Sandy was not selective when it came to wreaking havoc on communities. The physical and emotional impact of the storm was felt in wealthy suburban neighborhoods, seaside towns, government-sponsored housing developments, and even colleges and universities. Even as I obsessively monitored the news all week (once my power was restored) there seemed to be one prominent New York City community that was not making the headlines—New York’s homeless population.
The Saturday following Hurricane Sandy, I accompanied 25 Jewish high school students from Temple Sinai of Bergen County (http://www.templesinaibc.org/community/community-youth-program) on their volunteer program with Midnight Run, a 28-year-old organization dedicated to finding common ground between the housed and the homeless.
Even though this event drew a large number of volunteers, a few mentioned that their families were uncomfortable with their participation given the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, especially since many of their homes were still without power or heat. But those individuals believed their help and supplies were needed now more than ever—canceling was not an option. I wholeheartedly agreed.
Many volunteers felt compelled to volunteer regularly because “it is the right thing to do,” while others referenced a human obligation to help those in need. I was particularly impressed by one teen whose passion for serving others stems from Judaism’s commandment to focus on the “here and now” and give to others what they may not be able to give to themselves.
The teens first had dinner with two representatives from the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, a 20 year old organization that addresses the crisis of homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing through empowerment programs and a network of faith-based advocacy partners. These two formerly homeless women left the teens nearly speechless as they began to realize how very different their lives are from so many people living just a few miles away.
Our first three Midnight Run stations, which normally attract upwards of 20 homeless individuals, were deserted. Our guide went searching for some of the “regulars” but only one or two men visited our bus—a clear sign of Hurricane Sandy’s trail. Members of the homeless community had either relocated uptown or took advantage of one of the many open storm shelters. Oddly, it appeared that many of the city’s homeless were displaced.
In further irony, the last two distribution points we visited around 1:00am were merely four blocks from my office in midtown and proved to be the most popular. During the day, this area is typically buzzing with tourists, commuters, construction sites, food carts, and more. While it was much quieter than usual, the streets began filling with activity once our big yellow school bus showed up. With the infamous Herald Square Macy’s directly behind us, we scrambled to distribute the bagged meals, maintain a constant flow of hot chocolate, and search our clothing bins to find jeans, coats, and warm socks, items in high demand as the temperatures drop.
Hurricane Sandy provided a common ground for the evening’s conversations. Just as we were curious about how one is impacted by a destructive storm when one is already homeless, the homeless community was just as concerned about our safety and the effects of the storm on our families, especially once they heard we were from New Jersey. Sandy’s wrath was just as diverse within the homeless community as it was in other affected areas. Several individuals were not terribly inconvenienced by the storm—it was life as usual. Others explained that because their typical refuge during rain and snow inside the NYC subway system was severely impacted, their main method of transportation and warmth had suddenly vanished.
The two groups also discussed the then upcoming presidential election. Contrary to the teen’s assumptions, many members of the homeless community are registered and planned to cast their vote. In fact, some said the temporary tents in still powerless areas may even help increase homeless community voter turnout.
As we pulled into the temple parking lot around 2am, the teens had mixed emotions. They were disappointed that they did not get to interact with more members of the homeless community, but also very excited that they were able to help many individuals, especially during an increased period of need. A few of the volunteers and homeless had recognized each other from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s soup kitchen, which the teens volunteered at two weeks prior. The unexpected weaving of networks left both the homeless individuals and volunteers surprised and appreciative.
In closing, we also learned that donations and supplies for the homeless community have decreased as a result of the storm. Food pantries that were flooded or without power were forced to throw out their supplies and shipments of blankets and hygiene products are being redirected to disaster relief agencies, understandably so. However, this is leaving organizations that rely on donations regularly with less and less.
It is critical that those who can donate either time or resources continue to supply both much-needed emergency aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy while simultaneously ensuring that ongoing service providers are able to replenish and maintain their programs. These programs may in fact be needed by many of the Sandy victims in the coming weeks and months as we move from recovery to rebuilding. It is our duty as Jews, neighbors, and global citizens to ensure both can be successful.
For more information about the organizations mentioned above or to find out how you can get involved in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, please visit the following websites:
Repair the World’s Hurricane Sandy Help Now Website: http://www.werepair.org/blog/hurricane-sandy-how-to-help-now/16170
Temple Sinai of Bergen County: www.templesinaibc.org
Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing: www.iahh.org
Midnight Run: www.midnightrun.org