"You never, ever look down on a human being — whether it's a man, woman, or child — unless you're trying to lift them up," James, a warm, smiling man told us.
We were sitting in the middle of an empty dining hall at The Bowery Mission in New York City, waiting for the rush to arrive. That day, just like any other, homeless men, women, and children would arrive for lunch and, perhaps, a prayer.
This year, in New York City, a study released by the federal government found that over 75,000 people were homeless on any given night.
But that day, December 1, people from Leesa, a mattress company, and iHeartRadio's "The Breakfast Club" were in attendance to launch a month-long campaign to raise $150,000 for the mission and its life-changing programs.
Behind the scenes, volunteers prepped their stations, stacking bottles of purple smoothies, plates of croissants, and other donated items down a line at the serving station.
"This isn't just soup," a volunteer explained.
Back in July, Leesa donated 320 mattresses to formerly homeless men, including those at The Bowery Mission, to ease their transition out of homelessness and provide a comfortable sleep for what might've been their first time on a real bed in years.
Sitting on a bed in a dormitory upstairs, we talked with Spencer, a humble man with a twinkle in his eye and a tangible passion for helping others.
Many years ago, like James, Spencer arrived at the New York City mission in need of a place to stay. He was homeless and an addict, but he was ready for a change.
Spencer says that one day he turned on the radio and he heard Whitney Houston's "I Look To You" and the lyrics struck a cord:
As I lay me down / Heaven hear me now. / I'm lost without a cause / After giving it my all. / Winter storms have come / And darkened my sun. / After all that I've been through / Who on earth can I turn to? / I look to you.
When the song was through, he left work with a paycheck and a new kind of high. He cashed it and never looked back.
The Bowery Mission's red doors were open, so Spencer walked through.
"When the bad days come, don't quit," Spencer said. "Keep fighting. Fight through it."
The Bowery Mission's transformative strategy is an intricate one, incorporating "addiction recovery, one-on-one counseling, education and vocational training within a faith-based context," according to its website.
On a tour of the mission, CEO David P. Jones showed visitors rooms with neatly made beds and pillows where those participating in the various mission programs sleep.
Afterward, we headed downstairs to the dining hall and stepped aside, allowing for hungry visitors to get their afternoon meal.
Homelessness does not discriminate: people of all colors, some tall, others short, some muscular, skinny, hairy, quiet, loud, old and young all walked through the mission's doors that day. They all had a different story.
And they all sat together, at one of the many tables against the hall's walls. Music played quietly over the loud speaker while murmurs of conversation enveloped the room.
On her way out, an elderly woman stopped at a table of men, all of whom were eating their meals. She asked for another piece of bread, and though some kept their head down, one man handed her his piece.
She thanked him, and left.
James navigated the room as if it were his own — waving hello to familiar faces and sparking smiles, including our own.
"I've got more days behind me than I've got in front of me. But what I do for humanity will outlast," he told us earlier.
James' raspy voice is wise — etched with anecdotes, he talks through experience, providing simple life lessons to make even the most selfish person humble. And perhaps, most beautifully, his voice lends well to song.
We wouldn't believe the notes he could hit, James told us. Then, he sang "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."
And the dreams that you dreamed of, dreams really do come true.
"We're encouraging them to do something they haven't done in a long time which is literally dare to hope," Jones said. "Dare to dream again."
You, too, can make someone's dreams come alive.
To donate to The Bowery Mission and support their new 21-day shelter program, click here, or text BOWERY to 20222 to donate $10.