A simple backpack has become a symbol of hope to the tens of thousands of homeless men and women throughout New York City, the epicenter of the nation's coronavirus pandemic.
A volunteer movement called Backpacks for the Street is crisscrossing the city’s boroughs in a rented U-Haul, delivering backpacks filled with masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other essentials to New York's homeless. Since the COVID-19 crisis began ravaging the metropolis, where the virus has killed over 15,000 people since March, 1,200 backpacks have been handed out, according to Jeffrey Newman, who started the group with his fiancé, Jayson Conner, in 2018.
“For the people out on the street, the biggest thing when you talk to people out there is that they feel invisible, and they feel like nobody sees them as a human being," Newman, 52, told NBC News. "The thing about a backpack is that it gives people hope, it says, ‘Hey, we see you, and you matter.’”
Newman said the number of backpacks the group typically gives out has quadrupled since March. Before the pandemic, the nonprofit depended on about 10 volunteers to help hand out about 30 backpacks a day. In order to maintain social distancing, it now depends on just four volunteers, including Newman and Conner, who together are now handing out about 100 backpacks a day. On Friday, the group traversed about 80 miles of city streets over the span of 16 hours.
“I feel like we’re working 10 times as much as we did before," Newman said. "We’re very happy to be doing it; it’s a labor of love."
Currently, there are estimated to be over 60,000 people in New York City without homes, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, but they’re not always easy to find. Newman and Conner spend much of their time scouting the streets, wearing masks and gloves to protect themselves as they search for homeless wherever they can find them. They often depend on word-of-mouth to find those who’ve bedded down in out-of-sight areas.
And not only are they handing out vital supplies, they’re also educating people about how to stay safe. Usually, if a person who is homeless already has a mask on, “it’s really dirty and old, and it will have a hole in it,” Conner said. When they are handed a backpack, they are “ecstatic,” he added. “They don’t get that from anywhere else ... they really don’t.”
The couple said the pandemic has turned New York City into a “ghost town.” Streets once brimming with people are nearly empty. Many homeless are afraid to go into shelters for fear of catching COVID-19, the couple said. According to the New York City Department of Social Services, at least 657 homeless people have contracted the virus, and at least 52 have died. While the city has managed to house homeless people in about 1,000 hotel rooms, the couple said it’s still not enough to support the overwhelming number of people who feel they have nowhere safe to go.
“They are pretty damned scared, because they don’t know where to go, they don’t know what to do,” Conner said.
Conner, 42, is no stranger to the streets. Before he met Newman in 2004, who at the time ran his own internet business, Conner was struggling with a drug addiction while living on and off the streets, often couch surfing in friends' apartments to survive. Now a restaurateur, Conner said it “really hurts” to see people living on the streets, especially during a public health crisis.
Newman and Conner decided to start Backpacks for the Street after volunteering at a soup kitchen for several years. They said they launched their nonprofit, officially named Together Helping Others, after raising small donations from friends. Since then, the nonprofit has given out 4,000 backpacks filled with necessities such as toiletries, toothpaste, clothing, feminine hygiene products and food, according to Newman. Thanks to a recent grant from the TJX Foundation, they plan to set up pop-up stations where people can get their backpacks refilled, but Newman said the program is delayed due to the pandemic.
Newman said many have misconceptions about the homeless, including the perception that they are people who don’t want to work, but he said economic inequality and financial hardship are what's fueling the crisis.
“It’s just hardworking people who just had a bad streak and a bad moment and their circumstances are different, but they are no less worthy of being cared for and being saved and not getting coronavirus or worrying about food or going without shelter,” he said.
He said many Americans are just one or two paychecks away from becoming homeless. “What we are trying to get across to people, is the guys you see on the street, the women you see on the street, could be any one of us,” he said.