Imagine this: you're walking down a city block when you hear the jangle of change in a cup. You look up and see a homeless person sitting on the sidewalk, asking a passerby for help. You, like most of the other people on the street, sidestep the person and continue on with your day.
Since 1879, one institution in New York City has been doing the opposite. The Bowery Mission, located in downtown Manhattan, has been fighting homelessness head on. Instead of sidestepping the poor and needy, they have been inviting them into their home. And they've been doing it with a unique and profound message that is working.
"What we seek to do is be an intervention of compassionate care so it becomes an invitation to life change," Bowery Mission's CEO David P. Jones told A Plus. "Our form of intervention is we just love their socks off."
Jones, who, along with his staff at the Bowery Mission, helps run a growing 21-day shelter program, has a clear and concise antidote to homelessness: love, care and compassion. Any man (Jones acknowledges the need for women's shelters, but Bowery Mission's sleeping arrangements are just for men) who comes off the street and into Bowery Mission will get a hot meal, clean linens, towels, clean nightclothes, toiletries, and then a change of clothes from their stash of donations. Anyone can come for food.
All those things are given by a community that wants to help. The mattresses were donated by Leesa Mattress CEO David Wolfe. The more than 1,800 new coats Bowery Mission gave out this past Thanksgiving were donated by New Yorkers. Hot meals, clean linens, toiletries — all bought with money that comes in from donors and the community.
"What we ultimately want is someone to get off the street, to enter the fullness of the dignity of the humanity that we believe is theirs, to become productive, to give back to society and to be a part of it," Jones said.
Slowly but surely, they're accomplishing their goal. Last year, they gave out more than 400,000 meals, 91,000 nights of shelter and 44,000 articles of clothing. Just this Thanksgiving, they handed out 8,000 meals across the five boroughs of Manhattan. Since July 15, they've taken in 225 men to their shelter program. They've provided over 2,500 nights of shelter to those men, and 20 of the 225 have decided to stay past the 21 days and join Bowery Mission's life transformation program, which helps transition folks out of homelessness.
"The reality is it's always going to be a few," Jones said about getting 20 of 225 men to commit long-term. "But with a few you keep chipping away at the problem. We can't make the decision for them, but we're willing to do it with them."
72-year-old James Macklin, who first arrived at Bowery Mission three decades ago with a concoction of addictions — including an addiction to homelessness — is now a mainstay at Bowery Mission helping others.
"You never ever look down a human being, whether it's a man woman or a child, unless you're trying to lift them up," Macklin said. "I've got more days behind me than I've got in front of me, but what I do for humanity will outlast."
That sentiment is one that isn't just unique to Macklin. Almost all the staffers — people helping arrange a night of sleep, cooking a meal, organizing chapel services or connecting someone off the street with a social worker — have at one point or another suffered from homelessness themselves. One clean-cut-looking counselor who had been working there for seven years told me he first came in as a gang member with a crack addiction. Another told a story of fleeing his home country after being tortured, then landing in New York City with no friends, family or help — he only had Bowery Mission.
George Colon, who entered the shelter five months ago, said it took a while to find a place in New York that was what he needed to kick his old habits and get his life together (and he hopes, ultimately, to re-enter the life of his children).
"It's no different how they treat animals," he said of some other shelters in the city. "Give you some food, throw a roof over your head, got people dealing drugs in the shelter."
Now, though, he's part of Bowery Mission's life transformation program and is on his way to months of sobriety, his own housing and a full-time job at Bowery Mission as a social worker.
Jones, Macklin, Colon and even Leesa CEO David Wolfe have all experienced and learned the same thing: that love, compassion and a little guidance can go a long way. We'd be wise to heed their advice.
"They can choose to leave," Jones said of the people he sees on a day-to-day basis. "I don't want what... maybe some choose the first time to go back out and try it a while and come back in… but we're convinced that eventually, most will decide that this is better."
Want to help? You can donate cash, food or clothes to Bowery Mission here so they can continue providing their compassionate care.
This coverage of the Bowery was sponsored by Leesa.