Written by Helen McWilliam
I didn’t know Stephen’s name until after he had died. He always sat on the chairs near the Elephant Playground on the UWS of Manhattan. We walked past him often as it is a favourite playground of my children. I think I noticed him because he always looked so sad and I was struck by how young he was. I often thought about bringing him food, giving him money but I never made the time to do it. Next time, I’ll bring him a sandwich. Next time I’ll bring him a coffee. I was so shocked when I saw a sign on the seat where he always sat, asking if anyone had any more information about who he was, because he had died. It seemed many people had noticed the sad, young man on the park bench and didn’t want him to die anonymously.
Homeless people are a much rarer sight in Australia than they are in New York City. I am a social worker so I am aware of the support and services available to homeless people in Australia. To try and make myself feel better about having done nothing for Stephen, I wanted to see what I could have done for him. After my internet search and without getting too bogged down in the depressing details, it is a huge issue for the city. Homelessness is at its highest level since the Great Depression. It doesn’t just affect the men and women you regularly see but many families as well.
Through my research I was hoping to find out what organisations recommended people do when they see homeless people on the street. Obviously call 911 if you are seriously worried about a person sleeping rough and you think it’s a medical emergency. In extreme weather you can call 311 if you’re concerned about someone and the responsible organisation is required to act quickly to check on the welfare of that person.
From what I read, organisations don’t actively encourage giving money or food/water to homeless people. It won’t change their life however it may make their day easier. I also discovered lots of amazing work being done by organisations in New York to support the city’s homeless population. There’s outreach programs, food programs, crisis service and advocacy, to name a few. Coincidently AWNY’s chosen charity this year ‘The Dwelling Place’ is one such organisation. It is a transitional residence for homeless women, which works hard to maintain the dignity of the women and supports their transition back into the community. Keep an eye on the AWNY website and AWNY updates as there’ll be volunteering opportunities for this charity later in the year.
The homeless situation in NYC will not be solved any time soon but in honour of Stephen, I now make an effort to give food or money to people when I feel I should. I know it won’t change their lives but a little kindness goes a long way. I now also make a regular donation to a charity I believe does worthwhile work which does make a difference in the long term.
If you’re interested, here are some links to some of the websites I found useful and interesting:
If you don’t want to give money, the Coalition for the Homeless has some really good information on their website, including a help card to print out and give to people begging so they know where to go for help.